Flexible access to Internet

While the Internet explodes with companies creating sites to promote and sell products and services, less heralded is the growth of services for users who simply want to 'surf the 'Net.'The big online talk continues to revolve around large u.s.-based companies...

While the Internet explodes with companies creating sites to promote and sell products and services, less heralded is the growth of services for users who simply want to ‘surf the ‘Net.’

The big online talk continues to revolve around large u.s.-based companies such as Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, the impending Microsoft Online, and others, but there is a growing number of small operations offering ‘surfers’ flexible, and often cheaper, access to the Internet.

Across Canada, heated competition is developing between companies that offer relatively inexpensive access to the Internet without some of the bells and whistles of the more highly structured u.s. services.

They do this by using powerful computers called servers that have direct access to the Internet.

The subscriber, or client, uses software to talk to the server over telephone lines.

The client requests information, which the server collects and then sends along.

For more serious applications access is available through slip (Serial Line Internet Protocol) and ppp (Point to Point Protocol) connections which, when used with a high-speed modem, allow direct access to the Internet, limited only by the power of your computer.

This type of access is neccessary to take full advantage of the popular World Wide Web of servers, with its client software called Mosaic (and a newer version called NetScape) which employs an easy, and tremendously effective navigating system.

The Internet access providers vary widely in their services, some offering simple E-mail service, while others can supply the aforementioned high-speed dedicated access to the Internet.

They all have in common an interest in attracting business clients and the individual user.

There are dozens of Canadian companies providing Internet access of one sort or another right now, and more are likely to start soon.

About 20 have sprung up across the country since September.

In Ontario alone there are more than 28 suppliers.

Quebec and b.c. have more than 10 each, and the rest of the provinces have at least two or three.

Passport Online in Toronto offers full Internet access for $69.95 for 90 hours over three months, or $39.95 for 15 hours over three months.

Passport is promoting itself as a more hip alternative to what it considers mundane competition.

It advertises in the free Toronto arts weekly, eye, and X-tra, a magazine directed at Toronto’s gay and lesbian community, as well as Toronto radio station cfny.

Passport prides itself on its line-to-customer ratio and the fact that it employs an easy to use proprietary client server called Pipeline.

‘Our goal is to provide easy, friendly access to everyone at every level, both corporate and individual,’ says John Epstein, chief of operations at Passport.

The Wire, also of Toronto, offers access to E-mail and UseNet newsgroups for $75 per year, as well as various rates for full Internet access.

According to Marvin Stauch, an associate at The Wire, the most sought after feature among consumers is access to E-mail, the electronic message system that lets users send electronic mail around the world to other Internet users for free (except the price of Internet access.)

Stauch says that media hype has meant people with a wide range of knowledge are being attracted to online services.

‘Some of the people that come to us know next to nothing about the Internet outside of what they’ve heard from the media,’ he says.

‘Some others are very knowledgeable, and may even know more than we do.’

Stauch says when The Wire first began operating last summer it did some advertising in computer magazines, but it quickly found people’s interest was greater that its ability to accommodate them.

‘We got such good response we decided to hold off on advertising for a while, deciding instead to allow word-of-mouth advertising to do the work for us,’ he says.

Because of that,The Wire has ‘made a point of being dependable.

‘We wanted to make sure we could serve all of our customers, and that was being threatened by the numbers of people calling,’ Stauch says.

Internex Online has been offering Internet access to Torontonians for about a year and a half, making it one of the more established providers in the city.

Internex offers one year’s Internet access of one hour per day for $95, or unlimited access for $175 per month.

Internex has seen the evolution of the online customer from what is fondly referred to as the well-informed ‘computer geek’ to the less involved computer hobbyist of today.

‘We have a lot of people who started out BBSing (using Bulletin Board Services) throughout the ’80s, and as we hit the ’90s have become interested in the Internet and are looking for a service,’ says Emily Nagata, the Internex office manager.

‘Some of the major American online companies are providing E-Mail accounts only and have a selection of Internet files online, whereas we are able to provide full Internet access,’ Nagata says.

Rick Broadhead, coauthor of the Canadian Internet Handbook and a principal at Intervex Consulting, says some of the companies rushing into the marketplace because of the great demand, may find it hard to survive.

‘I think many of the firms that are getting into this are doing so without a complete understanding of the market,’ Broadhead says.

‘Running an Internet provider business is an expensive venture,’ he says.

‘There are so many capital investments you have to recover. It’s difficult to make money, and yet your prices have to be competitive.’

Broadhead says many of the new and smaller providers are incapable of providing the customer service necessary to compete.

He is of the opinion companies will have to differentiate themselves with value-added services: some can offer low cost services for those users who need no technical support, while others will charge more but cater to those who need their hands held as they first try to cross the info highway.

Broadhead says that while the market may seem flooded in metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, there are still many opportunities to set up Internet access businesses in less populated regions such as the Yukon and Northern Ontario.