Free Net Access--Too Good to Be True?

SAN FRANCISCO (03/20/2000) - What's the catch? There has to be a reason why free Internet services are taking off. I'm currently using and find that--unlike other services--it has minimal advertising and offers virtually unlimited usage.

I also pay for an account with a large ISP that features slower log-ins and e-mail delivery, and never connects at a speed faster than about 45 kbps.

Should I keep this account, or dump it in favor of the free one? It's true that Smart World Technologies LLC's lacks toll-free support, but what do you expect for free?

Tom Gundlach, Phoenix

There is no catch, though (as you note) you don't always get what you don't pay for. Free Internet access is like commercial TV--obviously, someone is paying for it, just not you. In the case of most free ISPs, advertisers subsidize your access. If they bother you, tune out their banner ads. The service you chose may be one of the best, though. Rather than forcing you to download and run proprietary software that displays incessant banner ads, simply requires that you make the company's site your browser's home page.

Still, even if you don't mind the more intrusive requirements imposed by the other sites, a free ISP may not be right for you. For one, not all offer POP3 e-mail accounts--a serious problem if you rely on a mail client (like Eudora) that doesn't work with Internet-based e-mail. And though the majority of free ISP services offer local phone numbers nationwide, the closest access number to your home may be a toll call. If you spend much time online, those local long-distance connections could end up costing you more than you pay for a standard ISP account.

A free ISP may not come through for you in other ways as well. When you sign on with a regular ISP, you get more than just a phone number and an e-mail address. Even budget plans often include Web hosting, multiple e-mail accounts, and 24-hour or toll-free tech support. More important, most free accounts don't support the faster types of access now available, such as ISDN, DSL, and modem bonding.

That doesn't mean the situation won't change, though. You can choose to move your Web site to any number of free hosting services, such as GeoCities, as long as you don't mind the ads they insert into your pages. As free ISPs continue to fiercely compete for customers, access numbers will undoubtedly increase, as will the types and quality of free services provided. Already, the first free DSL ISPs--albeit with numerous attached strings--have cropped up.

Competition from free ISPs may also force pay services to lower their rates or switch to the free mode. And finally, there may be some shakeout as a few services become dominant.

For now, a free ISP account can nicely complement your existing service, especially if the latter lacks nationwide numbers. If you don't mind the disruption of changing your e-mail and Web site addresses, you could certainly dump your monthly ISP subscription and save the $15 to $20 a month it costs.

But I'd keep that full-service account for another few months and watch how the free ISP scene evolves. Here's hoping we're all surfing for free a year from now.

Command your Modem with Hyperterminal

Once upon a time--before AOL, ISPs, and the Web--connecting to an online service like CompuServe, The Well, or MCIMail required an artifact called communications software. If you're a relative PC geezer like me, you may remember some of the leading titles--Procomm Plus, Smartcom, and HyperTerminal.

Wait a minute, that last one sounds familiar... yup, it still shows up in Windows under Start*Programs*Accessories*Communications. (The exact location may be different on your machine, but all versions of Windows from Windows 95 forward include a copy of HyperTerminal.)Since communications programs are unnecessary for browsing the Web, downloading files, or reading e-mail, you might be tempted to uninstall HyperTerminal.

Don't. Though your Web browser is good for a lot of things, it can't talk directly to your modem. In addition, your Web browser isn't a Telnet client--a device that provides the most basic means of connecting to other computers (Unix servers) over the Internet--though it can launch one as a helper application.

In most cases modems work just fine as long as you have all the proper drivers installed for them. On certain occasions, however, you may find yourself faced with a situation where you need to enable or disable a particular modem feature, check its firmware version number or date, or command it to hang up.

Fortunately, you can perform all of these tasks by employing the scores of AT commands described in your modem's manual. If frequent disconnections or slowdowns bedevil you, you may even be able to troubleshoot the problem by issuing an AT command to query the modem for its connection status.

It's quite easy to send AT commands to the modem from the command prompt (simply click Start*Run, then enter command) by using the echo command. For example, entering echo atz >com1 sends the atz (reset) command to whichever device is connected to COM1. Unfortunately, this simple command-line trick is a one-way affair: You won't see the OK response the modem sends back; and if the modem is actually connected to COM2, not COM1, you won't know any different.

HyperTerminal gives you a two-way conduit to your modem, including serial-port ISDN modems (see Figure 2). To create a connection to the modem, first launch HyperTerminal, then enter a name for the connection in the Connection Description dialog box. In the Connect To dialog box that appears next, choose the COM port your modem is connected to from the 'Connect using' list, and then click OK. Set the connection speed in the next dialog box (anything up to 115200 is safe), click OK, and you should be connected. To issue an AT command, type the command and press . Your modem should respond with 'OK'.

Yes, there is a Free ID

A few months ago, in a story called "Ready to Get Serious About E-Mail Privacy?" (January Internet Tips,, I reported that you have to purchase a Digital ID certificate if you want to possess one that doesn't expire after a brief demo period. But reader Lanny Marcus of Cali, Colombia, points out an alternative: Thawte Consulting offers unlimited free certificates to online visitors. To sign up for a personal certificate, visit Thawte's Web site at

Competing certificate authority VeriSign, which does not offer free certificates, recently bought Thawte, but Thawte will continue to offer its personal certificates for free.

Find files from this article at Send your questions and tips to We pay $50 for published items. Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.

Maximize New IE Windows

Navigator does it, why can't Internet Explorer? When you right-click a link in either browser, one choice on the menu that pops up is to open the link in a new window. Navigator dutifully opens a window the same size as the current one. But IE stubbornly uses a smaller size by default, which means that you have to maximize the window yourself. Here's a work-around. Instead of right-clicking the link, press -N to open a duplicate of the current window; thereafter, simply click the link.

Download of the Month

ICS Remote Disconnection Utility

I promise i'll stop obsessing about Windows 98 SE's Internet Connection Sharing soon--but it has changed life as I knew it on my office network. If you're similarly enamored with the feature (which allows one system to share its internet connection with other computers on the local network), you'll want to try out Twiga Limited's free Remote Disconnection Utility. RDU allows any computer running the shared connection to close it when they are done and notifies other users of the impending disconnection. You can find a single 1.5MB download containing both the client and the server portions of the utility on FileWorld, or on Twiga's site (