Every couple of years, I get a reminder of one way in which the Internet falls far short of competing, analog forms of communication: I move.

Yes, I despise packing up my things in boxes. But I can keep the same phone number, provided I don't change states, and have the post office forward my mail for the next year at no charge. The latter even provides the "value-added" service of not forwarding third-class mail, meaning my junk-mail tonnage drops for at least 36 hours.

But when I've switched Internet providers, I've gotten no such help. The only way to avoid correspondence going into the bit bucket is to send out a frantic "I'm moving!!" message to everybody who has e-mailed me in the past two years.

Or I could be like my friend Doug, who, after four years of the abuse America Online's software has inflicted on his aging PowerBook, still pays for an account there so he won't miss e-mail.

This is one case where the electronic world would do well to imitate the physical world. For one thing, you can usually forget about having your mail forwarded when you switch providers. "Why would I want to do that?" asked Bill Kirkner, Prodigy's chief technology officer. "Why would I want to facilitate customers leaving? AOL certainly won't forward your mail to Prodigy if you decide to leave them and come over to us."

The exceptions to the rule are small local companies, which will sometimes forward departing customers' messages upon request. Bob de Lorenzi, president of Fairfax-based PatriotNet, said his company usually relays e-mail for three months after a customer leaves. But many of his ex-customers couldn't have been kept around anyway: "Ninety percent of those people are leaving because they're moving out of the area."

As for getting a permanent e-mail address, your choices are marrying your Internet provider or employer, extra inconvenience, extra bills or some combination of those three.

The cheap but less-than-convenient way remains free Web-mail accounts with the likes of Hotmail or Yahoo. They're not geared for heavy traffic and tend to be pokey to use (unless you use both Hotmail and Microsoft's Outlook Express, in which case you can use that program instead of Hotmail's Web site) but they do cost nothing. They're also handy as throwaway addresses for use when registering software, buying plane tickets and so on.

The moderately cheap way is to obtain an e-mail-only account. Some colleges offer free or subsidized accounts to their alumni; otherwise, you can pay for an account with an e-mail provider. For instance POBox.com {lt}http://www.pobox.com{gt}, run by IC Group, a Philadelphia consulting firm, charges $15 a year to forward e-mail from a pobox.com address to your account du jour. You are, however, still basically handcuffed to one firm--what if it lets you down?

Finally, there's the more expensive vanity-plate approach: registering your own domain name (yourname.com, yourname.net or yourname.org), then getting your Internet provider to map your existing e-mail address to the new moniker (you@yourname.com instead of you523@random_isp.com). This is both the best long-term solution and the least convenient to implement.

Registering the domain is about as straightforward as committing electronic commerce can get these days: Go to the Web site of a domain-name registrar, see if your moniker is taken, pay $70 for two years of registration with a credit card. Until recently, Herndon-based Network Solutions {lt}http://www.networksolutions.com{gt} was your only option, but several other registrars recently opened for business, such as Register.com, CORE and NameSecure.com. (See http://www.icann.org for a list of these companies.) But in some weird failure of capitalism, the advent of competition has yet to result in any price cuts; almost all of these companies charge the same $70 fee. It also doesn't help that these firms only recently began pitching their services to home users.

"We actually just started approaching the consumer market about six, eight months ago," said Doug Wolford, Network Solutions' general manager. "We've now got about half a million consumer customers; last year at this time we had almost none." He added that Network Solutions is considering discount rates for residential consumers, possibly subsidized by advertising.

Getting an Internet provider to handle mail sent to your new domain name is more difficult, however. Very few brand-name, nationwide Internet providers will do this. The big players--America Online, AT&T Worldnet, CompuServe, Mindspring, MSN and Prodigy--do not support custom domains with their personal accounts; among the top 10, Earthlink is virtually alone in this respect. You'll have better luck with local shops, which will usually wire a domain name into an e-mail address for a small fee.

But wait! What if your current Internet provider goes belly-up? You'll have to get the new provider to remap your domain name to a new address. If done right, this is seamless; if done wrong, messages sent to you can bounce for weeks, a teeth-grating aggravation I went through two years ago when my work address was klutzily transported from one provider to the next. Warns Network Solutions' Wolford, "That's a pretty common experience."

Confused enough yet? Given all this, it's not a big surprise that so few people have bothered to register a domain name. Even if costs drop and the companies involved make it simpler (big ifs there) lots of people will probably make do without a personalized, permanent e-mail address--just as many drivers somehow live with the shame of plain old alphanumeric license plates.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.