Would you pay $20 a month for an unlisted phone number? One that telemarketers wouldn't call?
Then, stick with your current Internet service provider. Because the $20 a month you're paying is basically buying you privacy. (You'll want to add some anti-cookie and anti-ad software for a more completely private experience.)
If you don't care so much about being unlisted, if you're OK with the idea of a marketing company tracking your Internet activity and showing ads on your computer screen, or if you're happy to mislead that company by making up answers to their questions, it's time for you to stop paying for Internet access. Get it for free.
Here's how it works: You use your current access or a friend's access to go to a free Internet service Web site. There's an excellent list of them at USA's Free ISPs page (www.nzlist.org/user/ freeisp).
You answer some questions about your personal demographics --age, income, birthday, what you like to visit online --and then download their special free "banner bar" software. Install that software and you can use it to dial a local number and sign back on to the 'Net.
All your regular Internet software -- Netscape, Internet Explorer, Outlook, Eudora, whatever -- will still work just the same. The only changes will be that you won't pay any monthly or hourly fee (the good news) and that you will see the banner bar constantly showing advertising on your screen (the bad news). There is also a change behind the scenes, with the service provider tracking everything you do and typically selling that information to advertisers and other online firms.
Some of the providers are national, some regional or local.
Of the scores of free services listed there, how do you know which one is best? This is what to look for:
1. Compatibility with your computer. Nearly all work with Windows, but some also permit Mac or Linux use.
2. A local POP. That's a "Point Of Presence," a phone number that's close to you, close enough that the phone company can promise you that it won't cost much of anything to dial that number and stay on for hours. Some free ISPs have only one or a few POPs. Others have many.
3. No setup charge or annual fee. It isn't really free if you have to pay those kinds of fees, and there are plenty of services that don't charge them. (And don't ever give one of them your credit-card number, even if they promise not to charge on it.)
4. No referral requirement. You shouldn't have to sign up friends. Of course, if you like to do that, then this doesn't matter.
5. Support for all your Internet software. Not all free services give you Web, newsgroups and e-mail -- though even when they don't, you can sometimes wiggle around the limits. Still, it's easier if the service simply supports it.
6. A small banner bar. These can be as big as about 632x80 pixels or as small as about 490x90 pixels. Because the banner bar is on screen as long as you're connected, and always on top where it obscures any other windows, you want it to take up minimum space. (If the banner uses "Java," say no and go to some other provider. Java is a great technology for some things, but big and slow and clumsy running while you're trying to do other Internet things here.) The bar should also be inconspicuous in design and should offer useful information, such as news or weather.
7. Easy, fast, reliable connection. You can only find out by experience if the service is actually easy to connect to, or if the numbers are always busy or slow. You'll also discover if it is a service that tries to disconnect you every few minutes.
8. Limited privacy invasion. A short questionnaire, an online promise not to automatically sell your data to other companies, a chance to opt out of receiving annoying e-mail from "partners" of the firm: These are all good things.
So who has a local number for reliable, useful and unobtrusive service?
Look first to see if any club, school, or professional organization you're in offers a service.
That could help save you from competing with hordes of others trying to sign on to a general free service.
Trying a regional or local outfit can also cut back on that crowding.
Of the national outfits, I don't like NetZero.com because it has one of the biggest banner bars, lots of bothersome questions and will disconnect you if you don't click on ads. Juno.com also has a huge banner bar, many questions and a separate POP for e-mail. Forget that.
Freei.net has a smaller bar -- and one that downloads a lot faster when you first install -- but somehow its bar manages to be the most annoying.
Bluelight.com -- from the team of Kmart and Yahoo -- asks a lot of questions but has a bar that's not too bothersome and that actually disappears when you're at Yahoo's Web site.
If that's where you spend a lot of time, this might be your best bet.
TheSimpsons.com -- that's right, from Fox and the cartoon show of the same name -- uses software from 1stUp, which also provides free Internet technology to lots of organizations that want to slap their own labels on.
The banner is middling size but not annoying, and the personal questions aren't too pressing. I had some bug trouble during my testing, though, making me question its reliability.
AltaVista's MicroAV.com has a small bar with some useful search and information features plus a reasonable questionnaire. I'd rate it highly. I also like Freelane (http://freelane.excite.com) which has a small and useful bar and few questions.
Both of these services have Windows and Mac compatibility.
Your choice of free ISP -- as your main connection to the Net, or as a backup for those times when your regular ISP is busy or down -- depends on just where you are.
There's little to lose in signing up to test one or more, then keeping the one you like best.
If you're worried about privacy, make up a persona during testing, and only part with your true information when you settle on one.
I haven't yet found a free digital subscriber line service I trust.
They often ask for long commitments and special fee payments.