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August 17, 1997

How to gain Internet access,
create Web sites for free

By Timothy C. Barmann

There are few words that grab people's attention like the word "free." It's so often misused by marketers that we often view "free offers" with healthy skepticism.

But there really are some freebies out there when it comes to the Internet. You don't have to shell out $20 a month to get Internet access, nor do you even have to own a computer. You can get to the Web, get an E-mail address and set up your own World Wide Web site, all without paying a dime. You just have to know where to look.

One of the best-known free Internet resources is the Ocean State Free-Net, the state-wide public access network. The Free-Net, one of hundreds running around the country and around the world, started in Rhode Island as a project of the Department of State Library Services in 1994.

But for the past year, the Free-Net has been operating on its own as a non-profit organization, surviving with donations from users and with the help of dozens of volunteers.

The Free-Net does not offer complete Internet access. Free-Net users can send E-mail over the Internet and explore the World Wide Web though through a text-only Web browser. They can also chat, post messages on Free-Net discussion groups, and connect to pre-selected sites around the world, including other Free-Nets.

The Free-Net is a text-based system. The downside is that you can't see pictures or any of the fancy graphics that have inundated the Web. The upside is that you can use just about any computer and modem, even the 15 year-old antique PC in your attic, to connect to the Free-Net.

Anyone can get an account for free, but donations help keep it running.

The Free-Net recently began allowing its users to set up a simple text-only Web page. "Feel free to publish your poems, stories, recipes, lists of favorite restaurants, and even your diary," says the online instructions. You can view the Web sets created so far by going to the Free-Net's Web site at http://www.osfn.org/.

The modem numbers for the Free-Net are: Providence, 453-9698 (8 modems); Woonsocket, 767-8319 (3 modems); Newport, 845-2427 (3 modems); East Greenwich, 886-6170 (3 modems); Wakefield, 788-9720 (2 modems); Westerly, 348-4208 (1 modem); Little Compton, 635-8050 (4 modems).

E-mail by Juno

If you only want to send and receive E-mail and you have a Windows-based computer and at least a 9,600 bps modem, you can sign up for a free E-mail account with a company called Juno.

Juno, based in New York City, will provide you will its own special software for sending and receiving E-mail. What's the catch? Like several of the other free resources mentioned here, you'll have to put up with some advertising.

It's not actually free to get started with Juno anymore. The company now charges exactly $8.82 to mail the disk to you. You can order it by phone with a credit card by calling 800-654-JUNO.

However, if you have some way to access the Internet, you can download Juno's software for free from its Web site (http://www.juno.com). Juno software is not available for the Macintosh.

Web-based E-mail

If you have access to the Web, you can sign up for free E-mail. Hotmail, a Sunnyvale, Calif. based company offers the service, which is also supported by advertising.

Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com) claims to be the second largest E-mail provider, after America Online, with more than 5 million subscribers.

Patricia O'Donnell, an English teacher at Pawtucket's Tolman High School said many of her students are Hotmail users.

"They love doing E-mail," she said. "If that's all they could do they would be happy."

It also works out well for the school, which has a number of computers that let students access the Web. With Hotmail, school administrators don't have to worry about handing out and keeping track of E-mail addresses for the students. About a quarter of the 800 students at Tolman use Hotmail, O'Donnell said.

The students use it to correspond with "key" pals (as opposed to "pen" pals) from other countries, to work on class projects and to communicate with colleges they are considering attending, she said.

O'Donnell said the biggest problem with Hotmail is that it can run very slow. But you can't beat the price.

Hotmail can also be used to access messages sent to your regular E-mail address. That's a great feature for those who travel but don't bring a computer with them. All you need is access to the Web to get to your E-mail, as long as your Internet service provider uses a "POP mail server." Many do, but ask you ISP if you are unsure.

Web pages

Several companies offer space on their computers for you to set up your own Web pages, including Geocities (http://www.geocities.com) and Tripod (http://www.tripod.com).

Todd Bretl, a 14 year-old Barrington resident set up a site on Geocities that looks like a smorgasbord of Web page special effects. Visitors are treated to lightening flashes, strobing colors, messages scrolling across the screen and more. Bretl used Javascript, a computer language that can be embedded in Web pages, to create the effects. Some of the computer code is borrowed, while some he wrote himself. His page is at http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Lakes/8925/.

Why does Geocities offer Web sites for free?

"We believe that everybody has a right to their own personal home page in cyberspace," says a document at the Web site. Of course, there is something in it for Geocities as well. The company organizes the Web pages in a number of different "neighborhoods" based on interests. What they've been able to do is create very targeted audiences for advertisers.

The Free sites created on Geocities are supposed to be non-commercial. Those who want to promote a business have to pay extra for that privilege.

The free library

If you don't own a computer, you can still surf the Web by going to your local library. Many of the 67 libraries that are part of CLAN, the state-wide library network, have public Web access terminals, according to Peter Bennett, assistant director for support services of the Providence Public Library.

All of those libraries actually have the ability to offer Web access, he said, but some are still struggling with installing hardware and with ironing out policies to govern patrons usage of the terminals.

Bennett suggests calling your local library to see whether Web access is available yet.

Several libraries will also offer Internet classes this fall, including the main Providence library, he said.

Card catalog via Web

Speaking of CLAN, the library network's card catalog system is now available through the Web. The address is http://seq.clan.lib.ri.us, and click on Webpac.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.