Tiny firms flourish by opening Internet

August 12, 1994|By This article was written and reported by Sun staff writers Michael Dresser, Mark Guidera and Sascha Segan.

To get onto the information highway, take a bumpy dirt road past grazing sheep, sleeping heifers and waving fields of corn and turn into a musty barn on Jamie Clark's 550-acre family farm near Ellicott City.

There, inside a small, air-conditioned office, the youthful, mop-haired Mr. Clark has installed computers, modems and an entire wall of phone lines in a space no larger than a typical master bedroom.

From this isolated sanctuary, he links 1,500 customers in the Baltimore-Washington area with the world through the Internet, the global computer network that is revolutionizing the way millions of people share information and ideas.

The barn is an unconventional setting for a business on the leading edge of the information revolution, but in many ways, Mr. Clark's humble digs are a typical staging ground for many small businesses launched in recent years to provide public access to the Internet.

"I figured the barn space was free, and why not just start there?" said Mr. Clark of his year-old venture, known as ClarkNet. "I never even considered renting an office. People using the Internet don't care if you have a fancy office; they only want to know how good your customer support is."

Mr. Clark is an "Internet access provider," which means that he has the equipment to allow hundreds of people with personal computers and modems to dial into the Internet, communicate with one another and access thousands of databases and on-line discussion groups.

His firm made headlines this week when it disclosed that it had uncovered an international criminal ring using stolen credit card and calling card numbers to tap into the Internet from Europe.

Just five years ago, there were few businesses selling public access onto the Internet, an electronic web built by the Department of Defense and once used almost exclusively by academic researchers, businesses and government agencies.

But the phenomenal growth of personal computer use -- and publicity about the wonders of the Internet -- have created an explosion in the number of businesses selling access to it. Internet providers say they're experiencing average customer growth rates of 10 percent to 20 percent per month.

Kathryn McCabe, editor of Online Access in Chicago, said her magazine has carried lists of more than 200 businesses that offer Internet access -- not counting universities and free providers.

Internet providers act as middlemen, using their computers, which are connected to the Internet with a high-speed data line, to provide a gateway for home and small business computer users with modems. Subscribers dial in and pay a fee for their connect time, typically $20 to $35 a month.

The providers range from tiny operations such as CharmNet, which serves 50 customers from a rowhouse loft in East Baltimore, to giants such as San Diego-based Dial-N-Cerf-USA, with more than 8,000 users nationwide.

While the size of the commercial access providers varies, the founders often have much in common.

Most say they became hooked on the Internet long before they decided to make a business out of it. Ms. McCabe said many start out running bulletin board systems, or BBSes, which allow local users to exchange messages, information and programs. Most BBSes are run out of living rooms and basements. Anyone with a computer and a modem can start one.

Cyndi and Harold Williams did just that in their Bel Air home, launching a BBS called Magnus as an adjunct to Mr. Williams' programming business. Now they're turning it into a full-fledged Internet provider, offering the first access by local call in Harford County.

Internet providers tend to be an unconventional bunch. One of the first was Stewart Brand, the first publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog, founded in the 1960s as a kind of counterculture ** mail-order guide. In 1985 he founded The WELL, a San Francisco-based provider and bulletin board that now serves more than 10,000 customers nationwide.

"It's like the old wild, wild West out there. People are staking out a new territory, and individuality and freedom are what it's all about. If you want white-bread conformity, you can always go with America Online or one of the other commercial services," says Doug Humphrey, co-founder of Digital Express Group (DIGEX), which provides Internet access in Washington and Baltimore from its Greenbelt headquarters.

With $4,000, he and partner Michael Doughney started DIGEX in the unfinished basement of Mr. Humphrey's home three years ago while they were working as engineers for the University of Maryland radio station.

"You can still start one of these businesses in your basement, but you'd have to have a lot more money to do it today than when we started," said Mr. Humphrey.

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