A Free Opportunity

Giving away Internet access is all the rage. Everyone from AltaVista Co. to NetZero Inc. to Kmart Corp. has jumped into the game.

There are even reports that free DSL is just around the corner.

Where is this going, and what does it mean to you? Maybe more than you think.

You probably aren't going to use one of these free services for teleworkers. It would be too much to ask employees to tolerate the ads that drive these sites (although some firms post outside ads on their intranets, so never say never), and the service accountability is questionable (I can hear it now: "I tried to send in the third-quarter forecast, but the link was down and I couldn't reach anyone at Kmart").

But there are reams of employees in your company who might benefit from having access from home. A plugged-in work force A) might get some work done from home (if nothing more than checking e-mail) and B) becomes more familiar with the Internet and might recognize an opportunity for the company.

Why not review a few of these free services and release a note recommending one? Explain how it works, how the provider makes its money and lay out the potential downsides - how users will have to tolerate a lot of promotion from the provider and local access is limited, so some user's phone bills will be hefty.

There is, however, a potentially bigger opportunity: Maybe your company should consider giving away Internet access.

Most of the companies that have played this hand are connected to the industry in some fashion or another - the computer makers, the big Web organizations and others. But what does Kmart know that your company doesn't?

Maybe Kmart knows that wholesaling Net access for something like $12 per month (educated guess) is chump change compared to the opportunity to keep the Kmart brand in front of a nice demographic group. Think about it: For $12 per month, Kmart will get a wealthy group of people who willingly dial in every couple of days for a few minutes of quality face time. Seems pretty cheap.

International Data Group analyst Frank Gens says free Internet access will explode this year as companies do the math. He writes: "In 2000, free Internet access deals will expand to all major e-merchant segments - brokers, banks, retailers, travel companies, etc."

Why stop there? Couldn't Toyota benefit from this? Citicorp?

This may be a great cause for you to champion in the hallowed halls.

John Dix can be reached at jdix@nww.com.

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