The ISP email problem

There is a common misperception that you still need your traditional Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Telkom, MWeb or Polka to access the internet, even if you are actually connecting using a service like 3G or iBurst. Unless you got your 3G through these ISPs, this is not the case. If you use a 3G connection provided by a cellular service provider (like MTN SP, Vodacom SP, Nashua Mobile or Autopage), you don’t need any other ISP to access the internet - the cellular provider is your internet access provider.

I recently noticed how many people in our area are using email addresses supplied by their ISPs, though. If the above scenario applies to you, you are paying your ISP only for that email address, as you are not using them to access the internet any longer.

If email is as important to you as it is to me, I think using ISP email addresses is a bad idea. Yes, it’s free, but it also ties you into that ISP. I still have people trying to email me @mweb.co.za, 8 years after I stopped using MWeb as ISP! If you have an @telkomsa.net email address, your choices are to keep on paying Telkom, even though you can’t use them as ISP without your stolen Telkom phone line, or to go through the pain of changing your email address. What about that mweb.co.za or vodamail.co.za address? Even if you are still using the ISP, using their email addresses ties you into them, as you can’t change ISPs without first going through the pain of changing your email address.

There are two good articles on this topic at:

  1. Don’t use your ISP email - Part 1 (Why not?)
  2. Don’t use your ISP email - Part 2 (What to use instead)

The same applies to some extent to free webmail services. What happens if that company goes bust, stops providing the service, or changes the rules? I read recently that Microsoft are disabling WebDAV access to all hotmail.com accounts. This means Hotmail Pop Links, Outlook Express and Windows Mail (the email software included in Vista) access to hotmail.com accounts will stop working at the end of June 2008. If this affects you, you should download all your Hotmail email ASAP and tell people to stop using your @hotmail.com email address as soon as possible.

What about your office email address? Those of us who earn our livings in the corporate world probably all have office email addresses. While this may appear to be easy and convenient to use, what happens when you leave that company? If it’s your company, what if you sell it? Surely it makes sense to have a personal email address, separate from the office email, which should never have to change.

The solution

So what is the solution? The best way to ensure you stay in control of your email address, and ensure that you never have to change it again, is to use your own domain (the part of the email address after the @ sign: in nobody@example.com, the domain name is example.com). If you have your own domain, you can create any email address you want at the domain, and if you change ISPs, you simply take your domain with you, with no need to change your email address again! To get your own domain, you will have to register a domain, and then find somewhere to host it.

For the impatient, before we look at all the options in more detail, here are 3 suggestions for how to move away from your ISP email address(es):

  • If you are willing to spend a little money on this, pick a .co.za domain name, and register and host it with a company like Hetzner.
  • If you want your own domain, but don’t want to pay for it, register a za.net domain and host it on Google Apps. This does require some knowledge to set up though (more about this below).
  • If you don’t want to go throught all this trouble, and just want an email address for yourself and/or your family or a few friends or colleagues, I have set up the Google Apps service for the muldersdrift.za.net domain. So for a free email address @muldersdrift.za.net, just contact me with your name, phone number and the email address you would like!

Now let’s look at all the options in a little more detail:

To register a domain, you need to pick an available name under one of the available top level domains (like .co.za, .com, etc), and register it. Some of the top level domains to consider, include:

  • .co.za: This is the most popular South African domain, used for commercial and personal purposes. It is the SA equivalent of the US’s .com. Registration costs R50 per annum if you do it yourself directly with co.za, or typically slightly more if you get your hosting provider to do it for you. This is a good choice for a business, as it is a familiar top level domain for businesses in South Africa, and creates a professional image.
  • .org.za: This is meant for South African non-commercial organisations, including but not limited to charities, NGOs, Section 21 companies, trade and industry associations, trade unions, political parties and religious organisations. If you are running such an organization, this is the way to go. Registration costs R200 excl. VAT unless you can prove that you are a registered non-profit organization, in which case it is free. There are no annual renewal fees, though.
  • .za.net: Here any South African can register a FREE domain name. For personal email, this is a good choice. Online registration is easy, but takes between 3 days and 3 weeks to be approved. Be patient with their response times, as this is a free service provided by volunteers in their spare time. You also need to set up DNS servers first before registering - see below.
  • .nom.za: This is also a free service, catering for such individuals who wish to register a domain for personal use.
  • .com, .net, .org: Unlike the above-mentioned South African domains, these top level domain names are not country specific. If you can find a name in these domains that is not already taken, search Google for one of the many registrars of these domains.

Once you have found a suitable domain name, you need to find somewhere to host it. Options for this include:

  • Commercial hosting services in South Africa: There are many of these, ranging from large well known companies like Internet Solutions, and smaller providers like Hetzner or WebAfrica. The smaller companies like Hetzner provide good hosting services from as little as R19 per month, and are a good choice for email and web site hosting. Look out for what you are offered in terms of disk space, number of email addresses, and monthly bandwidth limits.
  • Hosting services abroad: there are many of these, especially in the US. Many of them are cheaper than local services, and offer you much higher limits on bandwith and disk space. They are often slower than local services though, as they are dependant on international bandwidth. They may also be affected by international bandwidth caps, or be unavailable in case of issues with SA’s international links.
  • Free hosting services: There are some free services available, but many of these come at a hidden cost. Some of them insist on owning the domain name, which defeats what we are trying to achieve. Others place ads on your website, and require a certain amount of traffic to that website, which is difficult to achieve if your primary aim is email and not web hosting. The one good option available is to use Google Apps, where you can host you own domain for free, and get services like GMail (with email addresses at your domain), a web site, and lots more.

Domain registration

Just a couple of notes on domain registrations:

  • For .co.za, .org.za and generic (.com, .net, .org) domains, you can either register the domain yourself or get your hosting provider to do this for you.\ Hosting providers typically charge a fee for doing this, but it is a lot easier to do this than to register it yourself, unless you know how to do it.\ For .za.net and .nom.za you typically need to do the registration yourself. I can help with this, though.
  • If you register a domain yourself, you need to setup Domain Name Service (DNS) servers first. These servers translate the human readable domain names we use to the numeric IP addresses that computers use. You need to understand how this works, though. While explaining this is beyond the scope of this document, there is some useful information at http://www.za.net/info.html. Free DNS hosting services are available from places like everydns.net and editdns.net.
  • Domain ownership: If you register a domain through a hosting company, make sure that they register it with you as the registrant/owner of the domain, and not themselves.
  • When registering a domain, you are typically asked for separate owner, technical and administrative/billing contact details. While you can use the same person (yourself) for all these contacts, I strongly recommend that you use different email addresses, and perferably email addresses at different domains, and even at different service providers if possible. It is also important to use addresses that will remain active, and not addresses you intend cancelling soon. This is important as any changes or updates to your domain registration typically relies on a ticketing system which sends email to all these email addresses, and expects an acknowledgement.

Avoiding spam

Have you ever wondered how your email address ended up on a Spammers list? The answer is simple, the more people who have your email address, the more likely you are to receive spam. Often when we buy a product on the internet we have to register it and provide our email address, but did you read the fine print? Did you consent to receiving promotions from their ‘partners’?

As soon as you enter your email address in a form on the Web, you lose control of it. In most cases nothing bad will happen, but they may just as well use the address to spam you, or they hand it to spammers for a few bucks.

Yet many sites require an email address to function properly, or to function at all. It looks like either you are excluded from a good part of the Web (from online shopping for example, and from getting announcements via email) – or you get spam.

Spammers also gather email addresses from mailing lists, newsgroups and opt-out lists.

The solution:

  • Don’t use your own email address to register at websites you don’t know or trust.
  • Don’t send email to public mailing lists and newsgroups from your primary email address.
  • Watch out for opt-out lists and unsubscribe links! These are often used to confirm the validity of your email address and then spammed with renewed vigour rather than to remove your address from any list(s).
  • Configure your browser to not download embedded images inside your emails automatically. When you receive an email with an embedded image, that image has to be downloaded separately from a server. When this happens, the spammers are able to confirm that the email address they have is real and that someone is in fact reading it.
  • Do not partake in chain letters. They normally take the form of “send this letter to 10 people and you will get good luck/win a new phone/make a donation to some worthy cause. Almost all of these chain letters are a hoax. Spammers use these emails to collect more addresses. In this case you are exposing yourself as well as all your colleagues and friends you are sending the email to. If you come across a chain letter that you believe is legitimate and you are adamant you wish to support it, then
  • Do a Google™ search using the subject line or any unique phrase in the email to check if this is not a known hoax.
  • Remove all the email addresses in the body of the email and send it as a bcc (blind copy) to your distribution list.

There are some steps you can take to avoid handing out your email address to people or websites you don’t know or don’t trust. These include:

  • Sign up for a free email account which you use only for signing up to websites and mailing lists. These are available for free from a number of places, including yahoo.com, webmail.co.za (various domains, but sends you “relevant marketing material”), hotmail.com (frequently targeted by dictionary attacks) and Google Mail™ (gmail.com
    • my favourite). If you already have such an account you use for your personal email, create another one for this purpose.
  • Create an alias for every site you sign up at. This way, if you start receiving spam at an email address, you can just disable or delete that alias. This sort of service is available from sites like fanmail.com, despammed.com and mailexpire.com. Ideally you should forward such emails to a separate email account as mentioned above, though, as there is no guarantee that such services won’t abuse your address too.
  • If you’re only signing up to get into a website, and do not want to ever receive email from them again after registration, use a disposable email address. A number of free services are available that offer this functionality in various ways. Examples include pookmail.com and mailinator.com, where no registration is required, emails are kept for a couple of hours only, and can be viewed on a website. Services like spamgourmet.com let you register with a valid email, and then forwards a limited number of messages addressed to a temporary address, to your email address.
  • For websites that require an email address in a valid format, but does not actually verify that the address exists, you can use services like spambob.org, where all email to anything@spambob.org is simply discarded.

Remember to trust nobody - even sites claiming to fight spam could be doing so under false pretenses to harvest addresses.