It's the first time one of the big free Internet service providers (ISP) has moved overseas, although the idea has already caught on in parts of Europe and Latin America. In the United States, free access has just recently jumped into the Net mainstream, with offerings from companies such as AltaVista, Yahoo and Kmart.
Freei.net's Asian operation will be based in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, and will initially serve Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. That leaves out some of the larger Internet markets in the region, such as Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
But those are the next steps, says Rod Hamlin, the company's vice president of business development.
"Singapore and Malaysia are really friendly markets for Americans, and the acceptance of high tech is very big," Hamlin said. "But these are just the first steps." The company has also been talking to possible partners in Australia and Japan, and will likely expand into those markets soon, he said.
Market researcher International Data Corporation predicts that the Asian markets will have more than 42 million Net users by the end of 2001. According to Goldman Sachs, about 15 million people in the region now use the Net.
Freei.net says it has signed up more than 1.5 million subscribers in the United States, about 1.1 million of which have used the service sometime in the last 60 days.