Free DSL - but at What Cost?

We've seen free ISP accounts and even free PCs offered to anyone willing to sacrifice privacy and put up with a lot of targeted advertising. Now Broadband Digital Group, a southern California startup, is touting free broadband Internet access via DSL, at an even steeper cost. The Orange County Register covered the story yesterday and other outlets picked it up today.

DSL service runs a distant second to the cable modem in the broadband race. No wonder: It's tough to install, configure and operate, even for the few telephone customers able to receive it. The Register's Chris Farnsworth accentuated the positive in his piece about a local company about to make national waves. According to Farnsworth, BDG is the brainchild of brothers Ryan and Chad Steelberg (Ryan is BDG's founder and CEO), who sold AdForce to CMGi last year for $500 million. The two also founded Winstar, another Orange County startup whose business model of targeted advertising is now deeply entangled with that of BDG. One skeptical analyst told Farnsworth BDG's plan is an "untested business model at a much larger cost [than ISP service]."

Both TechWeb and ZDNet succumbed to the temptation to play their headlines off BDG's planned April 1 launch date. ZDNet's Steven Vaughan-Nichols stressed BDG's foggy answers to questions about when, where and how the service would debut. The San Jose Mercury News' Jon Healey struck a skeptical note as he dissected the fine print of BDG's offering. In order to qualify for free DSL you not only have to give up a lot of demographic information, you also have to sign up 10 new subscribers for BDG and Winstar. Nor does BDG guarantee that if you go to that trouble you'll get your DSL - it only promises to ship you a compatible modem. So, in order to (maybe) get free broadband access, you have to help the brothers develop a pyramidal cadre of volunteer salesmen for their companies. How free is that?

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