Prepaid Internet Accounts: A Smarter Way to Surf?

clfrey@aol.com

Although the average dial-up user spends nearly a dozen hours online a week, some people don't use the Internet that much in a month.

Since most Internet service providers charge fixed monthly fees for unlimited access--regardless of how much actually gets used--infrequent Internet users may not be getting their money's worth. According to the Cahners In-Stat Group, almost 20% of all Internet users spend less than two hours a week online.

With prepaid Internet accounts, though, you pay only for what gets used.

Similar to prepaid phone cards, prepaid Internet accounts allot a certain number of minutes of dial-up access. Software, which runs the accounts from a computer and tracks the number of minutes used, comes on a CD-ROM starting at about $10. Most accounts expire after a year, but account holders can add more time or buy a new CD when the minutes are exhausted.

Most power users remain better off with a flat-rate account. But for light users of the Internet, prepaid plans can be a smarter and cheaper way to surf. Remember to keep an eye on the cost per minute, which varies significantly from plan to plan--and even within plans.

In addition to Internet access, each account also includes at least one e-mail address. To test prepaid Internet accounts from Slingshot, Sprint and MaGlobe, I installed the software while at home in Los Angeles, then took my laptop with me on a recent trip to Arizona.

Ideal for travelers, prepaid accounts include at least one toll-free access number and hundreds--sometimes thousands--of local numbers.

Dialing the toll-free number, however, reduces the number of minutes in an account by about two-thirds. Slingshot's prepaid accounts--which offer the best deal for domestic users--include 600 local minutes, but if you use the toll-free number, you get only 200 minutes.

Although the installation process--which took just minutes for each disc--and connection speeds were about the same for the three accounts, I had some problems dialing up with local numbers. The price per minute of access and number of access locations also varied significantly.

Slingshot offers the lowest price per minute with Internet access ranging from less than 2 cents a minute with local access numbers to 5 cents a minute with its toll-free number.

Sprint, the most expensive, ran as high as 16 cents a minute with its toll-free number.

MaGlobe is the only prepaid account that provides international access numbers, boasting 5,000 worldwide. Of the three accounts tested, it is also the only one compatible with Macintosh and Palm OS systems.

Although the discs are not yet widely available--sold only in select locations and online--backers expect most major retailers to carry them by the end of the summer.

Slingshot

Once I installed the software and submitted the account number supplied with the disc, I did not have to remember any user IDs or passwords to log on again. The software automatically dialed up.

If, however, I were to install the software on a second computer and use the same account from more than one location, I would have to call Slingshot's customer service to obtain an additional account number.

Of the more than 600 U.S. access numbers available with the account, two are local for Los Angeles, covering the 323 and 310 area codes. Although I live in the 213 area code, I logged on with the 323 number so I would not have to use the toll-free number.

It wasn't so simple in Arizona, however.

The Slingshot software I installed on my computer did not include a directory of local access numbers.

To find one for Tucson, I had to log on to the Internet using the toll-free number, choose a number from the Slingshot Web site, then sign off and log back on again with the local number.

Although this took only a few minutes, it counted against the number of minutes I had left. The disc, which sells for about $9.99, includes 600 local or 200 toll-free minutes.

Minutes expire one year from activation. E-mail accounts, which are accessible through the Slingshot Web site or a POP3 client, are valid 90 days after the minutes have been exhausted.

To maintain the same account or e-mail address, you can buy a recharge card from a Slingshot retailer--available in 625-, 1,300- and 2,000 local-minute increments--or add minutes to the account online using a credit card.

The disc is available at Staples and CompUSA. An upgraded version, which will include international access numbers, is expected to debut at the end of the summer. A free 10-minute trial CD is available from the Slingshot Web site, at http://www.slingshot.com/promo _cd.asp.

Sprint

Sprint's prepaid Internet cards--which supply user IDs and passwords but require account holders to download the software online--have been available in some Southern and Midwestern states, but the CD-ROM version launched last month in San Diego 7-Eleven and Target stores.

At $9.99, Sprint's disc costs the same as Slingshot's but offers less than a third of the time--only 180 local minutes or 60 toll-free minutes. Sprint also offers CDs with 600 local minutes for $19.99 and 1,200 minutes for $29.99.

To start my account, I had to submit the lengthy user ID and password that came with the disc. Although I was able to save the settings on my computer, I had to save the prepaid Internet card that contained the information as well. According to the Sprint Web site, if you lose your ID or password, customer service representatives cannot give it to you. So you lose the rest of your minutes as well.

Sprint offered access numbers for the same Los Angeles area codes as Slingshot--and also did not include a number with a 213 area code. But I was able to search the directory of available access numbers without logging on. It was included in the software I installed.

The e-mail account, accessible through a POP3 client only, is valid for 30 days after the prepaid account has expired or been exhausted. Each disc is assigned an expiration date. Prepaid accounts are good for at least a year. Mine was valid for 18 months.

Account holders can refresh their minutes online at http://www.sprintppi.com or by calling Sprint customer service.

MaGlobe

The basic Traveler account costs $14.99 for 360 local minutes or 150 toll-free minutes. That's about 4 cents per minute with local access numbers and 10 cents per minute with toll-free numbers.

The Traveler Plus, with 720 local minutes, costs $29.99. Marketed as the "prepaid global Internet access for the traveler," MaGlobe offers access numbers for cities in more than two dozen countries, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Oslo.

Closer to home, the directory also features more than a dozen Los Angeles access numbers--several of which are in the 213 area. But I had trouble dialing up with them and had to use a 323 number anyway.

Unlike with the Slingshot and Sprint account activations, when I signed on to my MaGlobe account for the first time, I had to fill out an extensive registration form, including my address, phone number, gender and occupation. Each time I tried to leave an entry field blank, it rejected my submission. Once I registered, however, I was able to change my user name and password to something that I would remember easily.

The account's tracking method also varied from the other two. Rather than counting the number of minutes I had used, it noted the amount of money I had spent, forcing me to do some math and figure out how much time I had left.

Although MaGlobe primarily offers access numbers for the United States, Canada, South America and Europe, updated versions are planned to include more numbers for Africa and Asia. The discs are available only online at http://www.maglobe.com, but they are expected to be in Fry's Electronics by the end of the summer.

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Christine Frey is a freelance writer.

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The Skinny

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Slingshot

Price: $9.99

Minutes: 600 local or 200 toll-free

Access numbers: More than 600

The good: Lowest price-per-minute rate

The bad: Not compatible with Macintosh systems

Bottom line: Best for infrequent Internet users

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Sprint

Price: $9.99

Minutes: 180 local or 60 toll-free

Access numbers: hundreds

The good: Expiration time could exceed a year

The bad: Highest price-per-minute rate

Bottom line: Too expensive for the number of minutes included

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MaGlobe

Price: $14.99

Minutes: 360 local or 150 toll-free

Access numbers: 5,000

The good: Works with both Windows and Macintosh systems

The bad: Available only online

Bottom line: Best for international travelers

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