As a growing number of Internet service providers can attest, offering free Internet access has its costs--overwhelming customer demand and uncertain revenue potential among them.
But those costs haven't scared start-up Tritium Networks away from a plan to launch a free Internet service in 11 U.S. cities by the fall.
In the next four to six weeks, Tritium says it will begin testing its full-bore dial-up Web and email access service in Cincinnati, supporting itself solely by selling advertisements that flash on subscribers' computer screens. If all goes as planned, the privately funded, 15-person company will have more than 100,000 customers within six months.
To get there Tritium will have to step through the wreckage left by other ISPs whose free Net access services crashed and burned.
Earlier this month, one telecommunications company, j3 Communications, yanked its service less than a month after offering free Net access to customers who signed up for phone service.
A low-cost Internet service offered by USFreeway has struggled to keep up with the crush of users wanting to sign up.
And in December, Freemark Communications pulled the plug on a free email service after running out of funds to market and expand the service.
Executives believe Tritium's service will be different because its network will let customers use any email or browser software they want, whether Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, Eudora, and so on. Other services have required that customers use proprietary software.
Michael Lee, president and chief executive officer of Tritium, believes his company can support even users who stay online for hours because the service will use a special advertising software, called Ad-Path, to rotate adds every 30 minutes.
"Every minute they are online that's two advertisements they have a had a chance to view," Lee said.
However, some analysts are more skeptical about the viability of another free Net access service.
"The ISP world is in great disarray right now," said Gary Arlen, president of the Arlen Communications consultancy in Bethesda, Maryland. "I don't know how these guys are going to market themselves."
Some players in the free-access market appear to be doing well or at least surviving. Juno remains the largest free email service in the country with more than 2.1 million subscribers.