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Free-Mail: Getting an E-mail Address Without Getting Into Debt

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
July 25, 1997

Now that the lack of an e-mail address is increasingly being seen as tantamount to the lack of opposable thumbs, you may be thinking it's time you got hooked up with e-mail yourself. You may also be thinking that yet another monthly bill is not what you need in your life right now.

No problem -- you can get that e-mail for free. Even as people in suits are spending lots of time, money and Government Printing Office ink in studies of how to guarantee universal access to e-mail, there are already four different ways to get an e-mail account gratis in the D.C. area. With some of these, you can even get free access to a chunk of the World Wide Web, if you can deal with some limitations.

In most of these cases, you only need a cheap used computer -- even an eight-year-old antique will do -- and a modem to match. You'll also usually need a "terminal emulation" program -- for instance, the Terminal program included with Windows. If you don't own one, most used-hardware and software stores should have one in stock for your system.

CapAccess -- CapAccess, a community network underwritten by public-television's WETA, offers Internet e-mail and constrained World Wide Web access (you can jump from link to link among different pages, but you can't type in a specific Web address), plus its own local-interest forums. There's a $25 registration fee, which can be waived in cases of financial need; CapAccess director Michael Strait said that the network is considering charging a small yearly fee in the $30 range. With its text-only, black-and-white setup, CapAccess is exceedingly low-tech and not at all cool, but on the other hand, on CapAccess a 15-year-old computer works as well as a brand-new box.

How to: Use these settings with a terminal program: modem speed up to 14,400 bps, "8-1-N" (eight data bits, one stop bit, no parity), VT 100 or VT102 terminal emulation. Dial 703/671-9382 with your modem and log in as "guest," with a password of "visitor," to set up an account.

Juno: If CapAccess is the PBS of free e-mail, Juno is more like MTV -- unabashedly commercial and wildly popular, with over 2.5 million users. The service, barely a year old, is advertising-supported and requires you to use its proprietary, Windows-only software. This means that before you get a Juno account, you have to fill out a rather intrusive marketing questionnaire; from then on, you're home free, delays to download an ad notwithstanding (the ads occupy a corner of your screen, and you may also get e-mailed "special offers" from Juno itself). Juno lacks such e-mail basics as file attachments -- meaning, for instance, that you can't send or receive any digitized photos of the grandkids -- but it's also by far the easiest free e-mail option available.

How to: You'll need at least a 386 PC to run Juno's software; call 800/654-5866 to have a copy sent to you.

UPN20email -- Since March, WDCA, the local Paramount TV affiliate, has offered this Juno-esque, ad-supported, free e-mail service; about 7,200 people have signed up. But unless you're feeling loyal to the folks who bring you Star Trek: Voyager, there are few reasons to pick this over Juno: The slow, Windows-only software features a fairly horrific user interface (to attach a file, use the "Edit Header" command instead of the "Insert File" toolbar button). And the program is only distributed on CD-ROM, even though the CD contains a utility program to create floppy disk copies of the installer program. Its only compelling advantage is the ability to send and receive attached files.

How to: You'll need a 386 PC; call 888/ 876-3624 to request a copy of the software.

Bulletin boards: Before anybody knew how to spell AOL, bulletin board systems (BBSes) provided online access for little or no money. These largely home-brewed systems are now an endangered species; the quasi-authoritative listing of D.C.-area boards, "Focke's List," has shown a consistent 10 percent decline in the number of boards each month. So we have to warn you: Whatever e-mail address you get via a BBS may not exist in a year, or even six months. That said, you can inspect Focke's List (the name comes from its compiler, local computer consultant Mike Focke) on the Web at http://idt.net/~gsp/bbdc/. View it at a library or on a friend's computer, then print out a copy to keep.

How to: With most BBSes, any plain old machine and modem will do fine, with the addition of terminal emulation software. The settings to use are normally 8-N-1, maximum possible modem speed and "ANSI or "PC BBS" terminal emulation.

Web-based e-mail: "Free" e-mail services that require Web access might sound dumb, but since many libraries offer Web access for free (see our list below), they're a viable alternative if you don't own a computer and don't plan on using e-mail much. Of the various competing services, the two best picks are Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com) and RocketMail (http://www.rocketmail. com). Hotmail has the most members of any Web e-mail service (over 5 million so far), which in the cold logic of ad-marketing means it's most likely to be around next year. RocketMail only dates to March and doesn't have nearly as many users as Hotmail, but it's growing fast and looks likely to follow in Hotmail's path. As with Juno, you fill out a marketing questionnaire before getting an account at either service; you then get a user name and password, which you can use to access your e-mail at any Web-connected computer in the world.

How to: You'll need a graphical Web browser like Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Sailor: At the other extreme, if you have e-mail (say, at work or school) but no Web access, Sailor, a public-access network run by Maryland's Department of Education, can get you a taste of the Web. Many Web sites, however, are indigestible in its black-and-white, text-only environment, but it's free -- and you can get e-mail accounts for low yearly fees through the Baltimore and Carroll County library systems (you don't need to live there to get accounts at those libraries; you can log in from any of the numbers below). Like CapAccess, Sailor requires only a computer, modem and terminal emulator.

How to: Use these settings with your terminal program: maximum possible modem speed, 8-N-1, VT100 terminal emulation. Dial whichever number is closest to you with your modem: Anne Arundel, 410/222-7100; Calvert, 410/257-9263; Charles, 301/645-2002; Frederick, 301/620-0055; Howard, 410/730-0707; Montgomery, 301/424-4200; Prince George's, 301/925-2400. Voice help: 410/396-4636.

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