AOL is set to give away that which it sells at a premium -- its McAfee VirusScan Online anti-virus software.

The free service will be one of the services featured in the AOL 9.0 Security Edition due out next month, an update to the 70 MB AOL 9.0 Optimized offering it currently provides. AOL had originally charged $2.95 a month for the anti-virus scanning service and had said some two million users out of its roughly 23 million base had signed up.

The Security Edition is designed to address existing and new customer concerns over safety and security on the Internet. Officials point to a study released by the National Cyber Security Alliance and AOL, which found that 67 percent of online users do not have anti-virus software on their computer. Of those surveyed, 19 percent have an active virus in their computer and 63 percent have had one in the past.

"One of the most compelling needs for families today is to feel safer and more secure online, and we have made safety our top priority at AOL," Jon Miller, AOL chairman and CEO, said in a statement. "That's why we started scanning every member e-mail attachment for viruses -- blocking more than a billion last year -- and why we offer our members broad spyware protection for their computers."

Officials are touting the leadership they're taking in protecting all its members, not just the ones who pony up the monthly fee. The McAfee virus protection software joins a batch of AOL protection measures that were once premium services. The Dulles, Va.-based ISP also provides free e-mail anti-virus, firewall, pop-up control and spam filter services.

The move is seen helping AOL entice its customer base to stay put. The other top U.S.-based Internet providers, according to their Web sites, are still charging users for software-based protection. Earthlink , partnered with Symantec , offers the popular Norton-based anti-virus and firewall protection for monthly fees between $3.95 and $5.95. MSN, the Internet arm of software giant Microsoft , offers a comprehensive security package as part of its $9.95 monthly subscription to MSN Premium.

The company said McAfee VirusScan Online lets members perform an on-demand scan of specific files, zipped files, folders, subfolders, drives, downloads, DVDs, and CD-ROMs at any time. When an infected file is found, McAfee VirusScan Online will automatically attempt to clean it. When the file cannot be cleaned, members have the option to delete or quarantine it.

Customers already paying dues for their monthly service will not be charged after the free service has begun, AOL said. AOL 9.0 users can download the software at Keyword: Anti-virus.