SAN FRANCISCO (07/17/2000) - Suddenly, in the upper right corner of my monitor, a blue jean-covered butt appeared. No, I wasn't downloading risqué photos from the Web. In return for free high-speed Internet access through a digital subscriber line, I'd agreed to let a California company run ads on my desktop, and I was getting an eyeful.
The New York Times Co. offered to show me its world on the Web. Another advertiser urged me to "make money in minutes!" Others promised links to the friendliest of doctors or the sharkiest of lawyers. A new ad appeared every 15 to 30 seconds.
Broadband Internet access is hot. And since Winfire Inc. began offering it for free earlier this year, more than a million people have signed up.
Many of them will have a long wait. The company started connecting customers in Atlanta and Dallas in April, Los Angeles in May, and New Orleans and Miami in June. Winfire plans to expand its FreeDSL service into 16 other cities, but as of early July only a thousand people actually had the service. Co-Chief Executive Officer Ryan Steelberg's most optimistic prediction calls for no more than 500,000 hookups by the end of the year. A Winfire spokesperson says 95,000 customers have accepted ad-free 56-kilobits-per-second dial-up service as an alternative while they wait.
You Get What You Pay For
Not every observer is convinced that Winfire will be able to stay in business.
Even with ads paying the way, "the cost at this point is just too high," says Fritz McCormick of The Yankee Group Inc.
Even if you're lucky enough to get to the head of the queue, you'll find a few hidden costs. You must buy a DSL modem and filters for the phone lines to make them usable for voice service. Winfire will sell you both items in a kit that costs $199 up front or about $10 monthly for 23 months. You must also agree to provide the company with demographic information (used to send targeted ads), and must install software that keeps Winfire's toolbar, with its streaming ads, active on your desktops at all times. Your FreeDSL e-mail goes out with a short text ad at the bottom. Winfire promises not to sell your personal information to others. And in line with most standard DSL contracts, if you want out before the 13 months have expired, you incur a $200 cancellation fee.
After several tech support calls, I had the inch-high Winfire tool bar (which works with any major browser) docked across the top of my screen. It occasionally obscured a key portion of a game or document, but moving it was easy, if a bit inconvenient. Users say they get used to the flashing ads, which resemble the banners on many Web sites--the toolbar has icons you can use to launch the Web sites of Winfire's business partners.
Speed With Distractions
"I'm used to the whole advertising idea. It's not a big deal to me," says Jonathan Poon, 22, a research technician at the Centers for Disease Control.
Georgia Tech student Greg Popowitz says the service is slower than the campus network, but it sped up submitting homework from his off-campus apartment.
My teenage sons barely noticed the ads--but they did report a marked improvement in download speeds over what our previous 28.8-kbps dial-up connection delivered. In my tests, the bandwidth proved slightly faster than the promised 144 kbps. Want more speed? Or fewer ads? Winfire charges $10 a month for ad-free basic service, $20 a month for 384 kbps, and $35 a month for 1.54 mbps--still slightly less than the $40 most DSL providers charge.
If you don't mind a long wait or a constant barrage of ads, consider FreeDSL.
Business users, however, may prefer the ad-free service, if only to avoid sudden distractions from the bottom line.
Unwired? Get Broadband Beamed to You
If you're eager for a taste of high-speed Internet access, but don't live within reach of DSL or cable service, help may be on the way. Sprint recently introduced a wireless system that delivers broadband access at up to 256 kbps upstream and between 1 and 5 mbps downstream by bouncing signals between diamond-shaped antennas perched on users' rooftops and a larger antenna on a nearby mountain.
Called Sprint Corp. Broadband Direct, the service was in trials in the greater Phoenix area for more than a year before launching formally this spring. Home customers pay $40 monthly and get a single IP address. Business users pay $90 for five IP addresses and faster callbacks when they need tech support.
Installation costs $299, with special price breaks to customers who sign long-term contracts. By year's end, Sprint plans to expand the service to 12 to 15 new markets, including San Francisco and Houston.
Wanted: Flat Terrain
The service uses 13.5-inch-square rooftop antennas that connect to a coaxial cable the installers run through a wall--in a set-up similar to cable TV installations. Then, it connects to a modem attached to the user's PC. Radio signals broadcast from the rooftop antenna can travel up to 35 miles, Sprint says.
The receiving and broadcast antennas must stand in line of sight, so in areas with hills and tall buildings Sprint uses multiple transmitting towers. The system should appeal to anyone who can't get cable or DSL service, just as satellite TV dish antennas found early buyers in areas without cable.
Early customers in Phoenix are enthusiastic. J. R. Robertson, chief executive of Air Photo USA, says Sprint's service speeds up his company's Web sales of digitized aerial photographs. Shari Leyva, whose home-based business sells promotional products, appreciates how the system lets her place orders online without tying up her phone.
"You're always online," Leyva says. "There's no dial in and no waiting. All you do is hit a button, and you're on the Web."