Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Avoid Free Email

Christmas is over. I can go back to delivering uncheery news. Here goes.

Montgomery County's cable franchisees provide customers with "free" email and "free" email addresses. Great! Or is it? Let's look at these two offerings one at a time.

Free Email Addresses

By "free" email addresses, I mean addresses such as or The domain names ( and show they are provided by a franchisee. I strongly recommend avoiding such addresses for your own use. These addresses tie you to the franchisee so that if you decide to change from one (oh let's say for example, Comcast) to another (gosh, let's say Verizon), you have a huge problem in front of you. There's no easy way to get all of your friends, colleagues, and family to use your new email. It's a hassle for you and it's a hassle for them. And you're probably on lots of email lists, too. Providers cannot be depended on to forward email after you close your account and get a new email address. So any mail that goes to the old address is lost to you.

Even worse are all the services that do authentication by reachability: You're authenticated if and only if you can receive email at the address you used when you originally signed up. I've got oodles of such accounts. There's no way to easily update all of these accounts. Apart from the number of them, some of the services using this technique make it very tricky to change email addresses.

I am particularly surprised when I see people using such addresses as part of their business. That's just asking for trouble - and having to reprint business cards or letterhead is the least of the problems. All the places on the web that have that old email address are essentially set in stone. There's just no way to get all the search engines on the web to give up a pointer to an old email address. If, for example, your business as a dance teacher received a favorable mention in the Gazette, it will be impossible to get the Gazette to change their archives to reflect your new address.

I know a lot of people switching from Comcast to Verizon and this is exactly the pain that they are going through. (And perhaps they'll be going through the opposite problem next year.) And this is why companies like AOL, offering an otherwise uncompetitive service, have been able to keep customers as long as they have. Because they own the email addresses that so many people have used for years are loath to give up. AOL recently recanted on this policy - AOL now allows non-customers to have AOL addresses - in an effort to stem the loss of customers by the millions - so ex-customers can keep their old AOL email addresses.

Even if you're happy with your provider or just decide it's easier not to switch to avoid such problems, you could still run into the same problems. For instance, cable companies go out of business or get bought out. Even Comcast - which has been stable here in Montgomery County, MD - has a record of switching domains. Comcast has bought several other franchises (e.g., Adelphia, Telemedia), forcing those users to switch to a mail address. And Comcast has sold or traded franchises in other areas (e.g., Time-Warner), with users having to give up their mail addresses. Such a scenario could definitely happen here.

Even without these franchise swaps, email addresses can be taken back by the provider. A number of reasons are plausible - from claims about spamming to demands by other users who happen to have clout. Bottom line: You don't own these mail addresses. (The provider does.) You don't even rent them. (They're "free," remember?) There is nothing in the terms-of-service (e.g., Comcast TOS) preventing you from losing your email address.

The Solution

Buy an email address thereby giving you control over it. It doesn't take very much money to buy a domain with lots of email addresses. For example, google, yahoo, and godaddy offer domains from $10 or less a year. Some, such as include an unlimited number of email addresses. There are many other providers that offer similar service and rates. (If you know of better deals with quality providers, please post them.)

Recognize that these email addresses are forwarding addresses. You can advertise your personalized email address but the email gets forwarded to some other service. So people may email me at but that is just a forwarding address that sends mail on to my mail provider - which might be Yahoo mail, Gmail, or some other provider (see below). If your mail provider, say, Google, takes back your account or you depart, say, Comcast, you can simply get a new account somewhere else and redirect your forwarding address to it. Note that I'm not recommending Google or Yahoo for mail; I'm just using them as examples here.

Having your own domain for mail forwarding is excellent and inexpensive but it's only half of the solution. Now the other half...

Free Email

A counterpart to free addresses is the free email offered by providers. By email, I mean the actual process of sending mail, receiving mail, and storing mail. Some providers also provide other services - such as spam filtering.

Can you guess what I'm going to say next? Avoid using the email service offered "for free!" by your internet service provider.

Before I get into the whys and wherefores, you're probably noticing how much I harp on the "free!" clause. Of course, we know they're not really free. Obviously, someone is paying for them. Could it be, uh, you and me? What the companies mean when they use the term free is really bundled. You are forced to pay for it and the cost is hidden, buried within your other fees (along with "free" webspace, "free" videophone service, "free" game portals, and so on). But when it is "free" in this sense, it's generally of minimal quality; whatever the provider can offer and still stick it in advertising copy with a straight face. Maybe some asterisks will help.

What do I mean by minimal quality? Well, for starters, there are few stated performance levels. No explanations of quality. No real guarantees. Just implied promises - most of which you, the wishful customer, read into it.

In the Comcast forum at, I have seen repeated reports of:
  • mail delivered after significant delays
  • undelivered mail
  • problems with their spam filtering
  • problems related to unadvertised limits
  • problems with other sites classifying Comcast as a provider of spam resulting in delays or blockages
Mail delays do not necessarily produce warning messages nor are complete failures necessarily reported to customers.

I have not followed Verizon's email service for as long but I have no reason to believe it would be any better - for much the same reason - it is offered as a freebie. Indeed, within the past few months, there have been outages reported (also at of Verizon's email service as well.

If you ask in just the right way, you may get credit on your bill for outages but such credits aren't guaranteed. There's no law requiring it nor is there anything in your contract to compel it. And even if you get credit, will it make up for the loss of service?

I've heard people claim "Personal email is not that important to me." Huh? Why even bother sending email if you're willing to accept that it won't be delivered? Or that you won't get the reply? Or that your email may disappear from your inbox?

I believe email’s use for telecommuting, communicating with businesses, or just interacting with friends and family, to be very important. Unfortunately, there are no organizations that monitor or regulate email performance. This means that any claims made by your provider should be viewed skeptically. And even if literally true, you need to read between the lines and think about the implications.

There are many providers who have mail standards and good records to match. For instance, and tuffmail are popular with some of my friends (although I don't use either myself). I hesitate to recommend my own provider or to even give specific recommendations because your choice will depend on numerous factors which differ from one provider to another. Most people focus on price and disk space limits. I give much more weight to reliability and support for IMAP. Other important attributes include bandwidth limits, spam/virus filtering, privacy, security, and timely status reports. Infinite Ink has a discussion of quality measures for IMAP providers that you may find helpful. If you know of a similar listing of POP providers or a forum in which mail service providers are discussed, I'd like to hear it.

Bottom line: Don't be surprised by disappointing (but "free!") email service from your cable provider. Expect to pay for quality mail service. Recognize the consequences of your choices in email providers. Anyone requiring a particular level of email service should arrange for email service from a provider which can provide a written performance standard and can demonstrate a record of timely delivery and reliable service.