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Trevor Blake: PDX4FREE.HTML

Update, February 2011: in the years since I wrote this essay the means of getting online for free and knowledge about how to do it have grown and changed.  Offered for historic purposed only.

Maybe you’ve heard about the Internet, but you haven’t gotten that e-mail address just yet. You might want to check things out before you commit. You might be poor. Maybe it’s a matter of principle. Or you just have a something-for-nothing chip on your shoulder. Whatever the reason, there are surely some people out there who want to get online but don’t want to pay for it. Well, what if you could get online for free? You can. As I discovered when researching the possibility of starting a free ISP (Internet Service Provider) in the early 1990s, Portland is sufficiently wired that not only is it possible to get there from Nowhere, but using Nothing in the process – you don’t even have to own a computer to use one. From the library’s offerings to advertisement-supported email, a wide variety of free online services are available in the 503 area code. There are limits to what can be done for free, but within those limits there is a large field of play.

If you’d like to get your business online for free, do me a few favors first: disconnect your phone and use the free phone down at Kinko’s; cancel your lease and carry your wares on your back, for free; operate only in Fareless Square downtown, where the buses are free – get the idea? You can get your business online for free, but there’s only so much you can get ‘for free’ in business before you have to work harder and pay more (in time) than you would have invested if you just plunked down the minimum fee for a paid account. This article won’t be of much use to you if you are trying to get your business online for free.

Non-profit, charitable and other sorta-businesses fall somewhere outside the ‘free online’ realm as well. Maybe you don’t have the money, but again, your work will be seriously compromised if you go the route described here. Fortunately, some ISPs offer a special reduced rate for non-profits – it might be less expensive than you think. While these methods may not be appropriate for groups, you could still hook up the members of that group (i.e. get a paid account for your school and free accounts for your students).

This article is most applicable to the singular you, intrepid cheapskate or frugal scholar that you are. These ideas are most practical for individuals who may not own computers or be especially familiar with them, who may not have regular access to computers, or for those who have computers and phone lines but don’t want to pay for online access.

Just like the for-pay services, the for-free Internet services don’t all offer the same things. Some are just plain free, operated as full-time hobbies by enthusiasts who do it for fun. Others are supported by advertisers – they offer you free Internet services in the hopes you will buy products from their advertisers, or so they can sell information about you to their advertisers. Some of these ISPs are non-simultaneous closed systems, where you’ll send things out and get things back but not in real time. These tend to be text-based systems. Other ISPs offer simultaneous, open systems, which support multimedia.

The one which is right for you will depend on what software and hardware you’re using, and what you want to do with it. For example, if you mostly need email, own an older computer and don’t want to deal with advertisers, you could choose to get a Fido account on a BBS (non-simultaneous, closed, text-based). If you don’t own a computer, don’t mind advertising and want to create a page on the World Wide Web (simultaneous, open, multimedia), there are places for you too. Read all the choices and try out a few services. Remember there’s no ‘wrong’ way to do it except to ask dumb questions (just kidding). You’re not going to break the Internet and all it takes is some time, so try things out and see what’s best.

The main place you’ve always gone for free information is still the place to go: the library. The Multnomah County Library, with over ten locations all over Portland, offers over one hundred public computers. Library policy is to aid patrons in finding whatever sick and twisted information they’re seeking, and as long as you limit yourself to half an hour on a particular box and don’t get caught using the resource for illegal ends, you’ve got yourself a free computer. Well, there are a few restrictions… you can’t install or download your own software, you can’t use irc, phone, mud/moo/mush or other interactive programs, and you’re not supposed to use e-mail while in the Library. While you’re in the library, mind you…

The Library also has a dialup number, if you’re going to be using a computer at home or work. The resources they offer are exceptional, and what’s even better is you can call up and then jack in to anywhere else online. If you’re dialing in, you can and should do anything you want.

This includes taking advantage of the free e-mail and free Web services from places like GeoCities, HotMail, Tripod, etc. (see list below). GeoCities is like an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow with billboards; the free Web pages are organized by theme into ‘communities.’ GeoCities was one of the earlier free Web services and is one of the largest; HotMail was one of the earlier free Web-based e-mail services and, having been bought by Microsoft, is now huge. New free Web-based Web page and e-mail services are appearing regularly; the list below, as long as it is, is not even half of what is out there.

Another option is (what else) one of the many Freenets. Freenets are ISPs that offer free e-mail at least, news and Web browsing sometimes, Web creating once in a great while. My favorite is National Capital Freenet in Ottawa, Canada, but Oregon has its very own – Eugene Freenet.

What about those of you who don’t own a computer, or don’t even want to? You may still want to try out the Internet. Rest assured, there are many computers in Portland. So many, in fact, that they’re starting to show up in second-hand stores for less than $10 each, and in dumpsters for free. Computers don’t have many moving parts (some don’t have any) so unless you drop them out of a window or spill something in them, they usually don’t break. A machine you find in the dumpster outside an office plaza can work as well as the day it first came out of the box. All you’ll have to do is figure out how to make it work. That’s the cost of doing things for free – learning something.

So why would someone buy an expensive new computer when there are so many inexpensive and free older ones? Because the new ones offer many new features (including the status of ownership). But how many of those new features are really necessary for getting online? None. All of the hardware and software you really need for getting online has existed for decades; now it is easier and faster to get online and you can do more, but if you’re willing to work a little harder, move a little slower and do a little less, you can do it all for free.

As long as your computer has an 80-column monitor (screen), a serial port (plug stuff in here), telecommunication software (calling all modems!), a storage device (tape, disk, whatever) and a modem (go, go, 300 baud!), you can get online for free. If you don’t know what any of this means, don’t worry: most of the computers you’ll see in second hand stores, pawn shops, yard sales and in dumpsters meet these minimal requirements. The former owners of those computers that don’t meet these requirements will know… and will probably pay you to take them away. And still, enough clever minds and idle hands have been tinkering with this junk for long enough that even these mighty dinosaurs can be made to get online for free. In fact, the main communications software I’m going to write about here assumes you’re cruising on yesterday’s best, not today’s bester.

By ‘older’ computers I mean computers made before around 1985, and ‘newer’ computers refer to those made after that date. More specifically, if you have a PC 286, 386, 486, Pentium or later, or a Macintosh, you have a ‘newer’ computer no matter what it says in the trade journals and the Sunday paper. If you have a Tandy, a Commodore, an Apple II, or an Atari, you have an ‘older’ computer – just like the ones I’ve been using since 1975, even with the slick devils of our modern age all about.

No matter what computer you are using, no matter how old or ugly a beast you may have inherited or graverobbed, it is very likely that there is a version of the telecommunication software called Kermit available for it. Some versions of Kermit are free, while others require a donation (for which you’ll get the software, a manual and technical support). While this goes against our efforts to use the f-word as many times as possible, some of our difference engine ancestors may only be Kermit-able; yeah, it’s not free, but it’s the only saddle fit for that Brontosaurus you’re gonna find, partner.

Many older computers will be able to use software other than Kermit, and there’s plenty of it for free once you get online. If you have nowhere else to start, start with Kermit: you’ll get online with a proven workhorse, then you can ride in style with the filly of your fancy.

So far, our people’s popular tour of the Internet has been devoted to direct connectivity. But there’s a few roadside attractions you should be aware of, places that aren’t hardwired directly into the backbone but slip messages in and out the back door. Welcome, seeker, to the world of the bulletin board.

There are dozens of BBSs in 503, and a good number of them offer free e-mail. The key words to look for in their descriptions are ‘Fido’ and (of course) ‘free.’ Fido is a not-necessarily-for-profit network of BBSs with thousands of users around the world: while the growing availability of free/cheap Internet access in North America has charmed some away from Fido, it is still going strong in Europe. In some cases (such as many island nations), Fidonet is still the only available connectivity. Fido has its own chat and news services to fill your days and nights, but if that’s not enough you can use a Fido/Internet gateway into and out of the Internet for free.

If you go the BBS route, you may be ‘limited’ to email alone; this means you can do everything anybody else can do, only slower. Since dozens of countries around the world reach the Net via email, methods have been developed to band-aid and bubble gum them into the rest of the Internet. Accessing the Internet by Email by Dr. Bob tells all. Even if you have full connectivity, this document will show you how to let the robots do the work for you more than you ever dreamed possible.

Plenty of BBS are now available via telnet as well as dial-in. That means as long as you can find somewhere to dial-in to (say, the Multnomah County Public Library) you can then telnet from there to a BBS.

So free dialup, free email, free WWW and free Internet aren’t good enough for you? How about free software? Juno is so keen on getting you online at no cost (and showing your their ads) they’ll even mail you the software for free. You’ll need a 386 PC or ‘better’ for their free email-only services. If you have a Windows 95 computer, NetZero offers free PPP (that is, Web ready) service, and AllAdvantage and SharkHunt will even pay you for time online!

There are some who argue that the Internet is an inherently progressive medium, and I agree with them in the way I think the telephone is such a medium – most everybody can use one at least a little bit and they can do some marvelous things. But most of our phone time really is just chat, and I expect that’s most of what the Internet will continue to offer: chat with pictures. Another prediction: several free Internet services (free dail-up, free everything) have appeared in England… can the US be far behind? I think not!

There are others who believe that the Internet is somehow elite, and with this I can’t agree. There are very few if any technological or financial limits to getting online (remember, I’m talking about Portland Oregon here and not [insert small town name here]). Your only investment is taking the time to figure things out. So cut a notch off your learning curve and join the party!


Multnomah County Library
telnet: – login as fastcat
dialup: 227-3962
terminal emulation: VT100

Once you connect to the Internet using the Library’s public terminals, you can find information for other free services like those listed below. Use Web browser software to find the addresses listed below that start with ‘http.’ The Internet addresses that start with ‘www’ typically indicate web sites. An address with the ‘at’ symbol in it, such as, refers to an email address.

National Capital Freenet: telnet to: and login as guest. Or see

“Free Internet Bulletin Boards” is a mighty fine Web page listing just that: free BBS around the world, some dial-in, some telnet. See for details.

“Dr. Bob’s “Accessing the Internet by Email” is currently accessible on the Web at but you might want to grab it fast – I don’t think Bob Rankin is supporting it any more and it might disappear completely any day now. In fact, I’ve just archived it at just in case.

Computer Bits and Computer Pages: Free local magazines with extensive BBS listings. Go to any computer, software or technical store and get yourself one each month. See also and

Free E-Mail and/or Web Pages:

Free Internet Access:

Kermit: or email If you’re starting from scratch and can’t use the Net to find your starter telecomm software, you can also contact Columbia University. Write:
Kermit Distribution
Columbia University Academic Information Systems
612 West 115th Street
New York NY 10025 USA
telephone: +212.854.3703, fax +212.663.8202.

Last Update: 8 January 2000