There ain't no such thing as a free lunch

Apr 16, 2001 (Updated Oct 31, 2010)

The Bottom Line Read the fine print

There are a few things I remember from high school.  One of them is the acronym, TANSTAAFL.  For those that can’t resist the urge to hand me a handkerchief, it stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.  The same thing applies to Internet service.  You may find a company that claims that they’ll allow you access at no cost, but there’s always a catch.

Free ISPs have to make their money somehow.  This is usually done in the form of an ad bar that’s constantly showing while you’re connected.  Those that have used Juno’s free service are familiar with this.  Advertisers pay to have the ISP show you a banner for a span of maybe 60 seconds or so.  The ISP gets paid by the advertisers and that money hopefully is enough to cover their bills.  If it’s not, the ISP may close its doors and you’re on to finding the next free ISP.

Some, like Juno, have a free version and a paid version.  If I recall, Juno currently doesn’t allow free members to even access the web.  All you get is an email address that you have to access by some other means.  Back in the day, though, you could get online with the ad bar or pay to have the bar removed.  Those that didn’t pay were generally at the mercy of the paying customers.  If too many people were online and you were deemed to have used too many hours, you got kicked off.  (I really don’t know what the standard was for too many hours.)

Of course, all this requires that you have a computer, a modem and a phone line.  If you are lacking in any of these areas, you can always go to your local library and see if they’ll let you use their computers to connect to the Internet.  Most libraries that I’ve been to do have this option, but it’s not guaranteed.  Even if they do have computers with Internet access, you’ll need to have a library card there.  Once you get one, you usually have to sign up and wait for an available computer.

It’s becoming more frequent for businesses, usually restaurants such as McDonalds and Panera, to offer free Wi-Fi.  This means that if you have your own laptop, you can bring it there and access the Web for free.  Of course, this means shelling out the money for a laptop (or other similar device) or borrowing someone else’s.  Plus, you have to drag it all the way over there and hope that you can find a seat.  I’ve done this a few times, but I always feel the need to buy something.  (Note:  Some libraries have free Wi-Fi at no cost, regardless of your status.)

There are a few things that you have to keep in mind when accessing the Web for free.  First, don’t count on customer service.  After all, you’re accessing the Web for free.  Not only that, but if you’re in a Panera, Panera may not be the one actually providing the service.  They are probably contracting with someone else, who may or may not be able to send someone out immediately.

Also, don’t count on high speeds.  If you’re accessing the Web for free at home, the ISP probably won’t provide you with a great connection.  If you want a great connection, you have to pay for it.  (I don’t think anyone offers cable Internet for free.)  If you’re using Wi-Fi at the library or Starbucks, you may be sharing your connection with two people or two dozen.  If you’re sharing with two dozen, even the best connection will lag.

As with many things, read the fine print.  Epinions may even have the service available for review.  Yes, it’s free, but it’s usually free for a reason.

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Member: Brian Kuhl
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