Brian Jahra’s eFREENET Project (2000)

Above: Brian Jahra photographed in 2011 at 360 Communications. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth #248 originally published as “The great Internet freeness” on June 27, 2000 in the Trinidad Guardian.

eFREENET made quite a splash in March with its announcement of free Internet access. The company offered computer users 75 free hours of free time per month, but not only is there no free lunch, there is no truly free Internet.

While there’s no question that the proposition offers great value to many Internet users testing the virtual waters, the company needs its users to become virtual consumers for its business model to make sense. Your first interface with the eFREENET system is what the company describes as the eFREEPortal.

A small floating window, roughly the width of the default window of a web browser and the height of the browser’s toolbar/URL header, it offers an interface through labelled and clickable buttons to several Internet based areas of the eFREENET website.

But that isn’t the first thing you see when you glance at the portal. The whole centre of the portal is filled with a 468 by 60 pixel advertising display where little animations run continuously. This is the first and most obvious price you pay for your free Internet time.

You can move the portal (an application built in Macromedia’s Director) anywhere you wish on the screen, but you can’t hide it (it floats above everything). If you close it, your Internet connection will go away in a few minutes. Database technology built into the company’s servers allows advertisers to reach a precisely targeted eFREENET user profile.

Once the user logs in and the ad is displayed; it logs itself as being seen. This sophistication extends to the advertiser’s bill – ads are paid for by the “impression” at a rate of TT$0.15¢ per viewing. To be fair, the window isn’t more obtrusive than any other popular banner laden website.

It’s easy to understand why advertisers would want to take this opportunity to pump up the visual volume on their fifteen-second moment in the digital sun using a web display you can’t click away from. It’s possible to shove the portal window to a section of the screen (if you have a big enough screen) and eventually dismiss it as more screen clutter.

It’s actually kind of easy after living through the type of brazen advertising that recent editions of Windows have dumped on the computer desktop. If you’re a computer user curious about the whole Internet thing or someone already connected who wants another ISP for some reason, the eFREENET deal isn’t a bad one.

The company has three Points of Presence (POP) at Port of Spain, Diego Martin and Arima. A new POP in San Fernando is awaiting a visit from TSTT and more POPs are planned. On signup, you are asked to provide some fairly neutral personal information on a questionnaire which asks for roughly the same depth of data that I’ve provided to get a free magazine.

Once you’re past that, you are free to surf wherever you wish in the browser of your choice. If you want to get more than 75 hours, you’ll need to start clicking on some of the advertising banners on the eFREENET website because for now, your freeness is being paid for by advertisers, both local and foreign, who want to get their message to you. Soon, the company hopes to sell to you more directly with an online superstore, supported by their experience in database connectivity.

eFREENET didn’t drop in out of nowhere. This small company is also Caribbean Interactive Multimedia; an early pioneer in local CD-ROM based multimedia presentations. When the bottom fell out of that market worldwide, the company diversified into web design and parlayed their knowledge of database design into a niche specialty – connecting existing database systems to web connected computers.

eFREENET, which occupies the same space and from what I could see the same computer systems as CIM, hopes to leverage that capacity to tie information about products and information about consumers together.

“We have an emphasis on the local market.” says Chief Technical Officer Calvin George, employee #4 at CIM, and the driving force behind the technical resources powering eFREENET. “Our web presence will be about what people see, what they want to buy and what they want to advertise. All of our content is served locally, so people accessing our systems should find browsing our website to be a fairly fluent experience.”

So far the lure of free access has been enough to interest more than 2000 people who have downloaded and installed the company’s portal software. There are more than 1700 registered users on the service in the nine weeks since it was introduced, and more than 80 percent use the service at least once a month.

Seventy percent of them are male and under 25 and start hitting the system hard once they get home. These young people have consumed bandwidth at peak periods to the point that eFREENET’s people, sitting a few feet from their server, can’t log in.

“We aren’t counting hours yet.” says George, “We are working on the server backend to eliminate erroneous disconnects and making more efficient use of the available bandwidth.” If you’re interested in trying out the system, the portal installer is a 4MB download or you can buy a CD from eFREENET for TT$25.00.

Macintosh users are out of luck for now. A version of the portal exists, but technical issues have extended pre-release testing on it.