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The Simpsons offering free Net access

In what could be the first of many similar offerings from News Corp., the parent company of the Fox Network launches a Simpson's-branded free ISP offering on the popular TV cartoon's Web site.

Ay caramba! The Simpsons are offering free Internet access.

In what could be the first of many similar offerings from News Corp., the parent company of the Fox Network has quietly launched a Simpson's-branded free ISP offering on the popular TV cartoon's Web site. Free email will also be available.

The service is powered by 1stup.com, the free ISP owned and operated by Internet investment company CMGI. Its deal with Fox is 1stup.com's latest high-profile partner. The company has also signed deals to provide a free ISP service for Web portals AltaVista and Excite@Home.

The offering is currently live on the site.

"Now you can sign up for FREE internet service and email from thesimpsons.com," the site reads, quoting C. Montgomery Burns, the miserly multimillionaire tycoon from the cartoon series. "I'm sure you'll agree, it's excellent."

According to Jordan Kurzweil, vice president of development at News Corp.'s News Digital, the company is looking to "tap into the grass roots community that has already grown with The Simpsons" Web site, he said.

Kurzweil said the company is also "in talks" to develop similar services for its other television shows.

For News Corp., the move comes as its other media rivals have taken more aggressive steps in formulating a centralized Internet strategy. Although News Corp. has taken significant stakes in some Internet properties, such as its $1 billion stake in Healtheon/WebMD, it has remained largely non-committal in the narrow-band world.

"News Corp.'s entire Internet strategy has not even been a toe in water, it's been half of a pinky finger," said Patrick Keane, an analyst at Jupiter Communications.

While News Corp. has slowly come to terms with its lagging narrow-band strategy, it is using aggressive broadband and interactive TV initiatives as a counterweight, Keane added. For example, News Corp.'s stake in TV Guide Interactive has been touted by company executives as its major portal play for TV and PC converging programming.

"If you assume that there is some convergence of televisions and computers, I don't think of any scenario where the television doesn't dominate," Peter Chernin, chief operating officer, told Reuters in an interview last year. "People are always going to watch far more hours of television, and if you have the dominant guidance company on that platform, I think it is potentially far more valuable than anything that exists in the pure-computer space."

The move today also comes as free ISPs have jumped into the spotlight over the past few months. In addition to the services launched by Excite@Home and AltaVista, Yahoo and Kmart also recently unveiled their own free ISP called BlueLight.com.

These companies earn revenue by selling targeted advertising on an always-present window that users must accept. In exchange for free access, users also have to provide demographic information and allow the ISP to track their online surfing habits.

The addition of another high-profile partner for 1stup.com also raises questions about what kind of free ISP offerings would attract more consumers. 1stup.com allows companies to put their own labels on their free ISP service, while NetZero maintains its own brand. Spinway.com, which powers Yahoo and Kmart's BlueLight.com, is also a private-label service.

According to Emily Meehan, an analyst at market research firm the Yankee Group, businesses such as 1stup.com and Spinway.com may have an advantage over NetZero because they partner with established content destinations, such as AltaVista, to grow its subscribers.

"At the end of the day it comes down to who gets you first, NetZero or AltaVista?" Meehan said. "I think there's more value added in free access along with something else, whether in the form of robust content offerings or in the form of major portals and retailer brands."

Reuters contributed to this report.