28 August 2009

Set Your E-mail Free by Pam Cerutti, Editor


You may have heard about Verizon's sale of its internet services in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont a few months ago. Some readers may even be the victims of the sudden switch of their e-mail addresses from verizon.net to myfairpoint.net. Neither Verizon nor FairPoint notified all customers in time to tell their family, friends, and business contacts of their new e-mail addresses. Many people not only lost all e-mail they had stored on Verizon's servers, but they also lost new messages that were sent to their void Verizon addresses. Furthermore, when FairPoint took over those accounts, their servers were initially overburdened, causing still more lost e-mail messages.

A news article now reports that FairPoint may have faked its readiness to take over the Verizon service areas. The Brattleboro (Vermont) Recorder reports that authorities received an anonymous tip, believed to be from a FairPoint insider. This tip claimed that FairPoint created a computer program "to deceive the audience into believing they were watching a real demonstration" of its readiness. Whether or not this proves true, as the article points out, "FairPoint has been hit with unprecedented numbers of consumer complaints ranging from billing errors and service order delays to long waits on call-in complaint lines since it took over Verizon’s phone networks in the three states Feb. 1." You can read the full story at http://www.reformer.com/localnews/ci_13196920.

You may wonder why this news appears in UpFront. Every reader uses e-mail, and many have their e-mail accounts with their service providers. That is, if you get billed by Verizon, your e-mail address may end in “verizon.net.” If your internet service bill comes from another provider–say, “Comcast” or “Podunk”–and your e-mail address ends in “comcast.net” or “podunk.com,” your e-mail's fate is tied to that of your service provider. If that company were to either fold or even just sell your service area to another company, what would become of your e-mail? The same problem exists for anyone who ever plans to move out of their current service area.

Consider all the places where you have given your e-mail address as your contact information. Many genealogists place queries on various online lists: surname lists, society lists, DNA studies, and many others. They share their family histories online and supply their e-mail addresses for others to share back with them. These will all need to be changed if the service provider changes–assuming the individual remembers every place he or she posted that e-mail address and is given sufficient time to set up another e-mail account and change each occurrence to the new address.

I sympathize with those who dread changing their e-mail to a new service. It seems like a daunting task if you've had the same e-mail address for a long time. However, it is a relatively easy job, especially when you do so on your own timetable, allowing time to notify contacts in a leisurely fashion. For example, I signed up for Google's e-mail service, called Gmail, a while ago. My incentive was a decision to purchase a bundled service for internet, cable TV, and telephone. Other people might be forced to change due to a move out of their internet service provider's geographic territory, and still others may simply want greater assurance of their e-mail's safety. Although I chose Gmail, this is not the only free and reasonable alternative; Yahoo and Hotmail are the other major services, and you may know of others.

When I first started using Gmail, I still kept my old e-mail account active for a transition period. Gmail allowed me to receive messages addressed to both my new Gmail address and my old e-mail address. I only had to look in my Gmail inbox to see all messages. Gmail would even let me send messages that would appear to be from that old address if I wished, though I never chose that option. Instead, I notified all my contacts of my new gmail.com address and updated all my mailing lists and business notifications. Over the next three months I kept an eye open for incoming e-mails addressed to my old Charter.com account. There weren't many, but I sent a notification of the change to the few with whom I wanted to stay in touch. Once my Gmail inbox stopped getting messages of value addressed to the old account, I painlessly changed service providers. Of course, I didn't have to change service providers to reap the advantages of Gmail; you can use Gmail (or Yahoo or Hotmail or others) even if you are keeping your existing provider. The difference is that your e-mail will no longer be subject to the limitations of that provider -- or its business decisions.

Google's Gmail is excellent. I feel much safer storing all my e-mail online now. Google even handles some very large file attachments; a message can contain up to 25 megabytes, assuming the recipient's e-mail can also handle that size. I was also pleasantly surprised at the speed with which Gmail completes a search for messages from a particular person or including a particular word or phrase. In addition, I get almost no spam since this change! In fact, I cannot recall the last time I saw a questionable message in my inbox. The online Help is thorough and clear although the basics are pretty straightforward without consulting it. Gmail has many other features yon might wish to explore, but they go well beyond the intent of this article.

Genealogists stand to lose a lot more than casual e-mail users, should their service providers go bankrupt, get gobbled up by larger ones, or decide to focus on large metropolitan areas as Verizon has done in the Northeast and may do elsewhere. In truth, the e-mail services I've mentioned might also go out of business at some point; however, they have shown themselves to be more stable, more reliable, and more able to handle huge amounts of data. While there are no guarantees, choosing a free, independent, internet-based e-mail provider might give you a measure of insurance against the pitfalls of abrupt business changes beyond your control or even necessary changes within your control. The time to set your e-mail free is before you must.

To obtain a Gmail account, go to http://www.google.com/ and click on Gmail at the top of the page. On the Gmail main page, click on Create an account on the right.

To obtain a Yahoo account, go to http://m.www.yahoo.com/ and click on Yahoo! Mail on the left. Below the login fields, locate the words "Don't have a Yahoo! ID?" and click on Sign Up.

To obtain a Windows Live Hotmail account, go tohttp://tinyurl.com/l9ucsj, locate the words, "Don't have a Windows Live ID?" and click on Sign up.