Some of the best things in life are free, they say. But are the free things always the best? I've been thinking about this since we ran a review of NetZero a few weeks ago.

NetZero, for the uninitiated, is a free Internet-access service: You go the company's Web site, download the software (or get somebody to put it on a Zip disk for you), install it, answer a marketing questionnaire, and off you go. The service costs you nothing except the few inches of your screen that are taken over by an advertising banner. You can't hide or close this banner or you'll be disconnected.

Our review didn't like this deal much, comparing NetZero's access to "a TV that only broadcasts commercials." Not all of our readers agreed with that assessment, judging by some moderately irate reactions that landed in our inbox. "Why would you or anyone be against free Internet service?" reader Kevin Williams of the District wrote.

Why, indeed? Some things, pretty much everyone seems to agree should be free: radio, CNN at airports, bagels at a meeting. Others, however, you're supposed to pay for: the phone, HBO at home, scones at a Starbucks. Personally, I've always thought that Internet access is one of those things that are supposed to cost a few bucks (one of the reasons I had somebody else review NetZero).

It's not that I'm unwilling to save a buck or two; last year, I switched my phone service from Bell Atlantic to Starpower to shave a measly $3 and change off the bill. But I've been paying about $20 a month, every month, since October 1994, when I got my first account with a real Internet provider. (That, incidentally, represented a big savings from the time I was keeping separate accounts on America Online and CompuServe, to the tune of $40 or more a month.)

Wondering if I was, in fact, some sort of dupe, I e-mailed Williams to inquire further. Turns out he has not one but four free Internet accounts, and he doesn't plan on paying any time soon. He predicted, "The Internet . . . is going to be an advertiser-sponsored medium, just like broadcast TV and radio." As for those intrusive questionnaires: "Advertisers lie and so can you!" True enough, if perhaps put a little bluntly.

I also clicked my way over to one of these free Internet providers, AltaVista {lt}{gt}. After a quick download and install and a mercifully brief list of questions to answer (I left most of them blank), I logged on and found a rectangular ad window floating on top of my browser. Since I've been ignoring ad banners inside Web pages for years, ignoring one outside the browser window didn't take much extra effort.

After 45 minutes or so, however, an alert message flashed on the screen: "Your health meter is getting dangerously low. To prevent being disconnected, click on an advertisement or a navigation button." That was a novel definition of well-being, but since I didn't want to get kicked offline, I clicked on one of those buttons and restored myself to perfect "health."

Yes, AltaVista's approach is a little silly. But it's probably fine if you just want to hop online for 10 or 15 minutes a day to check mail at your Hotmail account, buy a CD or look up movie reviews. Plenty of people think ad-supported Internet access is acceptable: NetZero's membership--1.68 million and climbing--makes it one of the largest Internet providers in the world.

On the other hand, free Internet access isn't what I'd want for my own access: I rely on it too much. I tend to keep e-mail accounts much longer than phone numbers or street addresses, and I don't want to navigate through somebody's idea of interactive marketing to use them. Also, I don't plan to be using a dial-up modem to connect at home much longer, but I've yet to hear anybody offering high-speed access for free.

Meanwhile, though, I have no problem with keeping a freebie e-mail account at Yahoo (it's a good throwaway address to use when I register software), and I've been meaning to grab one of those free fax accounts too (I get so few faxes, I don't care if they fail to arrive immediately).

And who knows what else the New Economy could begin giving away for free? How about ad-supported cars? (Actually, we have them; it's called NASCAR.) Ad-supported beer? Ad-supported TV dinners?

Or ad-supported TV. My cable company just increased its rates again, which means I'm about to be billed more than $50 a month for basic, expanded basic and HBO. Even assuming I have the free time to watch that much programming, is it still worthwhile? Getting e-mail from my friends and family matters to me enough to pay for it; I can't quite say the same for a crystal-clear picture of this year's crop of sitcoms.

E-mail Rob Pegoraro at

Rob Pegoraro will be hosting a live Web discussion at 1 p.m. today about free Internet access and other things he's seen at the Internet World trade show. To participate, go to