NEW YORK -- By now, whether it's $21.95 or $9.95, it seems to be an Internet fact of life: No one roams for free.

But the World Wide Web is still too new to presume that anything is set in stone, and monthly dial-up fees could become another Internet dinosaur if others keep giving away what America Online is trying to sell.Last week, Gateway announced that it would throw in a free year of its Internet service with any computer purchase of more than $1,000.

But even more threatening to the stranglehold of the pay-for-service providers has been the early success of some new rivals that let you dial up for free.

More than a million British have signed on with a service named Freeserve, which began operating in September, but has already surpassed America Online as Britain's most popular Internet access provider.

NetZero, brought to the Web by the same venture capitalists who sparked an online stampede by giving away ad-rigged computers at Free-PC.com, has signed up 400,000 customers since it launched a free service in October.

That's just a fraction of the more than 2 million subscribers added since mid-November by AOL, the king of connectivity with 16 million subscribers.

But it's hardly a marginal development in an industry that made a relic of Netscape Communications, the very first Internet powerhouse, in less than three years.

In exchange for free Web access, these services want free access to your eyeballs -- and a fixed portion of your computer screen -- so they can show you a continuous parade of advertisements.

The Internet is already the Glitter Gulch of advertising, so an ever-present box or banner isn't a deal-breaker for most Web users.

If the free services are successful, Internet access could be reduced from a revenue-producing business to a mere marketing gimmick -- a throw-in like PC software or rust-proofing for a pick-up truck.

But, because most of these new services have meager resources and little experience, some people wonder whether they'll get exactly what they bargained for.

"I would always pay for access, because I don't want problems," said David Meier, who normally loves a good cyber-bargain, guiding people to "free stuff" on the Internet with his y4i.com Web site. "I don't want to worry about getting online or them being too busy, and I don't want that little box on my screen. I'd rather pay the 20 bucks a month."

Even among those who seem happy with their switch to a free Internet service provider, or ISP, doubts persist.

In a recent e-mail to NetZero, which is based in Westlake Village, Calif., a new female subscriber said, "I plan on canceling my troublesome $19.95 a month Internet account."

However, fearful of companies "that go out of business within a few months and leave the users or subscribers standing with a blank look on their face," the woman also felt compelled to ask, "How long have you been operating, and if you DO go out of business anytime in the forseeable future, will you let all the users know well in advance?"

America Online, which charges $21.95 a month for unlimited Internet access, has no plans to get into a price war with these new services.

"This is certainly a very competitive industry, but we believe we offer the best value," said AOL spokesperson Wendy Goldberg. "We offer a community, a community we program an experience for."

Meanwhile, there's plenty of doubt as to whether ad revenue alone can cover the huge costs of running an Internet service.

"If you're not funded big time, there's no way you can provide good service," said Ilan Klein, president of Vizooal Inc., a New York-based Internet marketing firm.

Those pondering a free Web service would be well advised to remember that they'll be moving to a new playing field.

Most new services are far more vulnerable to financial pressures and technological problems than big players like AOL, AT&T, Microsoft Network, EarthLink and MindSpring.

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That could mean little or no customer support and the risk that the service might suddenly vanish along with your e-mail address.

A browser search for "free Internet access" will produce a discouraging list of bum steers, "earn-at-home" schemes and "bait-and-switch" offers -- including one for a revolutionary new water pitcher.

An overwhelming number of those Web sites feature links to a Freewwweb.com, a service which isn't exactly free. The Connecticut-based company charges a one-time fee of about $120, but seems to be one of the few NetZero rivals with local dial-up numbers across most of the nation.

Another service, webCOMBO.com, charges a one-time fee of $149.95 for otherwise free access to its national network. Others such as zDial.com, FreePPP.com, and FreeI.com charge nothing, but only have local dial-up numbers in a specific region.

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