Sunday, January 18, 1998
Net services free, with one catch

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Here's an offer that's hard to pass up: free Internet service.

But there's a catch. You must put up with commercials.

This is the idea of a 27-year-old Cincinnati entrepreneur who has started such a service locally and plans to expand to five major cities by spring.

If it works, it could turn the Internet into something more like television and radio.

Michael Lee, president of InterAD Group in Montgomery, has spent three years and $1.5 million developing Tritium Network.

The concept is simple: Special software allows users to connect to the Tritium Internet service and also takes over the bottom of the computer's browser window. While the user surfs, Tritium's ads stream by.

The user gets free Internet access, including e-mail service, while the advertisers get a better showcase than a banner ad on a Web page.

The software works with Netscape and Microsoft browsers, and even with America Online software, allowing users to connect to AOL through Tritium and lower their monthly AOL charge.

Ads based on demographics

The ads a user sees are personalized, based on demographic information provided by the user when he logs on the service. The ads cycle, changing each 30 seconds.

Mr. Lee said the additional ads won't slow down the Internet connection since the software downloads and caches the ads while the user is looking at a page. The ads are similar to the Internet banner ads familiar to Web surfers, about an inch high and the width of the screen.

More than 50 Fortune 1000 companies have bought ads on Tritium, Mr. Lee said.

The service was announced last year; the first users logged on last week. While Mr. Lee estimated that ''several thousand'' have signed up, only a few hundred at a time are allowed to join.

''We need to limit the service so we don't run into the AOL problem,'' Mr. Lee said, citing America Online's troubles last year when it struggled with millions of new subscribers. Tritium currently can provide technical support only during business hours, so initial users should be familiar with the Internet.

As the service grows, round-the-clock tech support and more subscribers will be added.

To join, you need to visit the Web site and register, leaving your name and address. Next, you need to download the software, but you can't do that until your account has been activated and you are given a special password to the software area.

Once accepted, users get unlimited Web access and e-mail.

Hiding the ads?

What's to stop Tritium users from altering the software to hide the ads?

''That would be defeating the purpose of what we're trying to build,'' Mr. Lee said. Anyone who tampers with the software is immediately knocked off, he said, and membership could be revoked.

While Cincinnati subscribers will connect directly to Tritium, the company will use CompuServe Network Services to expand the service to New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco and Chicago within the next 45 days.

Mr. Lee isn't the first to create an ad-supported ISP. HyperNet attempted it in San Francisco but shut down last summer due to lack of advertising. Mr. Lee is undeterred.

''(HyperNet) was a Japanese company, and the ad space was vertical,'' he said. But Western ads are horizontal. And he thinks that the timing is better.

There's another reason he's venturing onto ground where others have failed: He has a higher mission.

''Information should be free,'' he told me. ''We're developing into a society of information haves and have-nots. The barrier is the point of access. This creates an inequality in society.''

He points out that while the Internet is becoming the repository of the world's knowledge, you need a computer and $20 a month to connect.

''We really want to see the idea of equal access to the Internet,'' he said.

In a previous life, Mr. Lee was an equities trader. But only in his 20s, he felt he needed a change.

''I was seeking to do something more positive for the community,'' he said. ''Making money is not the only value in life.''

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at