CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1994 //

Jacking in from "Free At Last" Port:

Washington, DC -- "Free Internet Access!" That's what the sign fronting the B3 Corporation's small booth here at Internet '94 said.

A small man, rounding at the middle, handed out cards, with a penny pasted to, it to curious passers-by. "It costs less than this (a penny) to access the Internet," the card says.

Free.org is the domain and "all you can eat" is the name of the game for this unknown, Marshfield, Wis.-based company. A bright yellow flyer at the booth said: "Most Internet service providers charge a set-up fee, a monthly fee and an hourly fee for extra hours. Free.org is a free service! No set-up fee. No monthly fee. All the time is free."

Sound familiar? No, this isn't the International Internet Association reborn. This is a new twist on the "free, FREE, FREE!" offers that seem to crop up with increasingly regularity on the Net.

What's the catch? "No catch," said George Burr, vice president of marketing and administration for B3. "All you have to do is dial long distance to get to us and everything else is free. Really," he said.

How can B3 offer such a deal? Under a six-year contract, a "corporate sponsor" provides B3 with "a source of revenue when you call," Burr said. "We get a kick back from our corporate sponsor on every call."

Kick-back. That was the exact phrase he used... several times.

Who is the generous Internet benefactor? Burr refused to cough up the information. He was smiling.

But Dispatch has learned who that sponsor is and how this self-acknowledged "kick back" scheme works.

The corporate sponsor is a small independent telephone company called Badger Telephone. Badger cut a deal with B3 so that for every long distance call that comes into "free.org" it pays B3 some percentage of the ACCESS FEES that every long distance carrier must, by law, pay to the local telephone company.

A study released earlier this year, claimed those access fees amount to about $20 billion a year, paid to local telephone companies. Long distance companies are on record saying that about 40% of all their revenues go to pay these access charges.

Badger, apparently, is banking on the fact that free Internet access will be such a draw that tens of thousands of people will log into FREE.ORG, for their free accounts. And for each long distance call made, Badger cleans up and kicks back" a percentage to B3.

"It's all on the up and up," Burr said, of the "kick back" deal with his corporate sponsor.

All you have to do is call 715-743-1600 and follow the prompts. You'll be assigned an Internet account and password all at no charge. You do pay for the long distance charge, Burr notes.

But once you get your account set up, you're allowed as much Internet time as your wallet will handle.

Burr swore that FREE.ORG users wouldn't be inundated with "junk mailings." However, "we may from time to time send them some information we think is appropriate."

Just how good a deal is this? You be the judge. But you might consider this: On the business card that Burr gave me, his Email address was listed as "gburr@wis.com."

Meeks out...