As part of my job at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, I teach a beginners computer class for seniors who use the library's public computers. Some of the seniors do not have a computer at home. When I can, I find them a donated computer that they can use for basic word processing and Internet browsing; later, as their skills increase, they can decide whether to buy a new computer. It doesn't make sense for them to buy a new computer while they are still learning the basics.
Two months ago I delivered a donated Windows 2000, Pentium III computer to an 87-year-old woman in my class. I suggested that she start off with dial-up Internet, as she might not use DSL or cable-modem service all that much. This computer had OpenOffice and Firefox installed, so she had all the tools she would need to do word processing and surf the Web.
I set up a NetZero account on her computer. This dial-up Internet service costs $10 a month. She started using it mostly to check e-mail from family and friends and to play some fun games on the Web, such as TextTwist and Mahjong.
All was well until the hard drive failed. I found another Windows 2000 computer for her and tried installing NetZero on it. For some reason the software would not install, so I called NetZero's tech support. The support line charges $1.95 per minute--roughly $120 an hour. After about 10 minutes of troubleshooting, the nice tech support rep suggested that the NetZero software we were using might be defective and that we should find another NetZero CD. That suggestion was not quite worth $20. I had the NetZero software downloaded to my flash drive--and that wouldn't install either.
Instead I found a first-generation PowerMac G4 and installed the Mac version of NetZero on that. The computer has ample memory, but the Web surfing is much slower than with NetZero on Windows.
I'll be switching the Mac for a donated Windows XP, Pentium IV computer next week. I'm expecting that the NetZero software will install and work well on it. I guess I might have been pushing my luck a bit trying to use a Windows 2000 computer in 2009.
All in all, my experiences with NetZero have not been that bad. I do fault the company for its tech support price gouging, though. Who in their right mind is going to pay $120 an hour for tech support? For a dial-up Internet service? Come on.
One last thing: Considering how infrequently my student uses NetZero, the $10-per-month fee almost seems too much for her to pay. What would be really great is if NetZero were to have an arrangement with public libraries (or nonprofit organizations) to offer dial-up service to 50 people for $150 per month. Each person chips in $3 a month and gets a dial-up account that they share with 5 or 10 other people. The shared dial-up accounts would allot the users 2 hours per day. Occasionally people would be unable to log on when someone else in their shared group was online.
Imagine that you're unemployed and you need Internet access to stay in touch with people and do some basic job hunting from home. Sparing $3 per month is much more doable than forking over $10 per month. Yes, dial-up Internet is slow, but it's perfectly adequate for perusing job announcements on Craigslist.
Some people believe that everyone needs to get online with a fast Internet connection these days. But certain users might have good reasons to continue on dial-up--if providers can figure out creative ways to keep the monthly charges as affordable as possible. And dial-up in 2009 is not as slow as dial-up was in 1995; computers and browsers are faster.
The blogger is an educator and technology commentator in the Washington DC-area. He can reached at: email@example.com