I’m not sure if many people ever used it, or if people were even aware of it, but in many versions of Windows, Microsoft included a mechanism for people who didn’t have internet access to obtain internet access by signing up for it over their referral service.
Where someone didn’t already have a configured internet connection on a fresh install (say of Windows 2000 Professional as above), they would be prompted upon trying to access a URL with the above Internet Connection Wizard. Where people may have LAN access, they can dismiss it using the last option and most people do that without thinking twice because they’ve reinstalled Windows so many times that they can just set up their ISP’s Dial-Up Networking settings with a blindfold on.
But lets say you were a novice and you didn’t have an internet account, but you did have a modem connected to a phone line, what can you do? The first option is for you!
The service will, using your local information, try to call the Microsoft ISP Referral Service number, normally a free call if you’re in a country which they serve. If it is busy, it will try three times. Once connected, the computer will automatically log-in to the server at the other end, spend about 60 seconds downloading all the plans, logos, etc and then hang-up the line and you can proceed to browse through the listing.
Once you’ve made your choice, then the modem will dial-out to that ISP using sign-up credentials and actually help you perform the sign-up. Internet sorted! Of course, only a select number of ISPs actually participated so you wouldn’t always get the best deals around, but it was convenience.
The only reason I knew of this was by accident as a teenager. I was curious to see what would happen, and when I saw it was a 1800 free-call number, I was very pleased and kept that number in my arsenal for modem test purposes. Sure, Microsoft would have to pay for my call, but they could afford one or two a year I’m sure. In the later days, it was also an answer modem that supported V.92 but did not support Modem-on-Hold or reliable quick-connects, but it was useful to check V.92 firmware operated correctly with V.44 compression as well. I have a suspicion that the Australian number was operated by Telstra, as it went V.92 at the same time Telstra’s modem banks started making the transition.
Sadly, in Windows 7, such a facility no longer exists. The last I saw it was in Windows XP. In 2016 when I checked, the 1800 Australian number had gone dead. That would be consistent with the fact that Telstra killed off its dial-up modem bank in August 2015.
In my desperation, I spent almost $10 making numerous calls overseas – I was determined to catalogue the entire list of numbers and their reachability status from my VoIP service.
As it turns out, only a handful of numbers still had a modem answer. The main reason is probably because Microsoft no longer pays to have the ISP referral service operating, and the numbers are hence being shut down. Another key reason may be the fact that free call numbers are restricted from international calling, hence I receive errors which local users may not.
I concentrated on the modem answer numbers to try and get to the next step and list the local region ISPs but to no avail. Even restricting the speed of the modem didn’t get me anywhere in the difficult international VoIP situation.
After some serial sniffing, it was determined that the modem physical link was fine – the connection was failing at the PPP stage, where passwords were being exchanged. The hard-coded ISP referral service login credentials no longer provided access.
It seems that the numbers which still answer with a modem may be just free-call numbers that nobody remembered to disconnect and just forwards onto a major telco’s modem bank which used to operate the Microsoft ISP Referral Service on Microsoft’s behalf. These numbers will soon be gone as well.
As dial-up ISPs dwindle, and the number of V.90/V.92 access numbers that are reachable are also starting to fade, experiments with modems in the V.90/V.92 mode are threatened. As V.90/V.92 are digital modem modes, there is no way for you to run a V.90/V.92 modem server at home unless you set up your own ISDN infrastructure or similar – an analog to analog modem connection will only have V.34 at its disposal. Your last chance to relive the V.90/V.92 experience lies within the next few years, maybe a decade at the most. Your other options are to dial the commercial ISP numbers should they still be active, although many of them are not reachable by VoIP for those without landlines like myself.
The numbers above were extremely useful in the times where they operated as it was a free way to test your modem. You might try it locally from your country to see if it still works, but chances are, it doesn’t.
Ultimately, I have no idea how successful the referral service was – nobody I knew ever used it, nobody I knew ever became a customer of an ISP because of it, but it was definitely an easy way to bootstrap the process of finding and signing up for an ISP and could’ve well been someone’s first internet purchase.