Return of free Net access

At a time when America Online and IBM are sticking their customers with added costs, Tritium Network will be offering free Net access to five U.S. cities.

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At a time when established Internet service providers America Online and IBM are socking their customers with rate hikes and time limits, Tritium Network will be providing free access to five U.S. cities starting Monday.

Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington will be offered free access, available to the first 4,000 subscribers for each city. The service is available in Chicago starting Monday, with another city slated to have access each week.

But like other free online services, there's a different price to pay. In exchange for free access, users of the ISP have to tolerate continual ads that are delivered via a software program called Adpath. The software essentially lets a banner advertisement at the bottom of the screen to follow users wherever they surf the Net.

"It's a sub-application that runs outside of the browser window," said chief executive Michael Lee. "It's very similar to CNN--it's the ticker tape at the bottom."

This is Tritium's second go-around at trying to launch the free ISP, an area with few success stories. The company first tried to launch the service in Cincinnati, where it failed to meet projections of 100,000 customers. The lukewarm response in that city left Tritium with only 1,500 customers and delayed its initial service offer to 11 U.S. cities.

Tritium made a deal with CompuServe to provide network access. "They were offering us a bigger backbone that would deliver the service we needed," Lee said.

As reported by CNET's NEWS.COM, telecommunications company j3 Communications, scrapped its service less than a month after offering free Net access to customers who signed up for phone service. Another service called Bigger.net offers Internet access free of monthly charges but with a $60 to $70 setup fee.