louis martin
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San Francisco, California--

"The standard, running joke around here," said Marc Fleishmann, President of Internet Distribution Services, "is that between San Mateo and San Jose on El Camino there are 2,500 Internet access providers."

But not so in the rural environment. In the boonies there may be no local Internet access provider at all. Yet with the growing popularity of the Internet and the World Wide Web and the information it provides, the desire to gain access is growing daily. For some, not getting on the Net means a lack of intellectual growth; for others, it can mean lost business opportunities.

Two types of Internet access are sold these days by providers: end-user accounts and network links. With an end-user account, a user with a PC and a modem dials up the provider, enters a user name and a password, and is hooked up to the provider's machine. That is like being on America On Line or Compuserve. With a network link, the provider runs a 56 kilobit per second or 24-channel T1 trunk line to the user's facility.

In the rural environment, the most common type of access is the end-user account. But in the rural environment there is a special problem. Unless the user is located in the same area as the provider, the computer will be making a long-distance call. While a long-distance call may not be a problem for a quick chat with a friend, most Internet sessions are prolonged "conversations." Which is to say, potentially expensive.

Large providers will also provide toll-free access by way of banks of modems placed in communities. That gives users local access to the network.

Using the example of AOL, Fleishmann said, "AOL has physically run a bank of modems to towns around the U.S., and for us we can have a local Palo Alto phone number that we can call to get on AOL. To do that AOL has a room somewhere--they need about 4 square feet--with a bank of modems that you dial into, and they run lease lines . . . to where ever their machines really are."

The situation is similar for Internet access. But out in the county it is often not economical for providers to have banks of modems in each area where the phone number is different.

For instance, for a large Internet access provider such as Netcom, it is not money well spent to provide access to 20 users in the town of Elk in Mendocino County. But for a local provider outside the dialing area of Elk--such as the Mendocino Community Network--it may be economical for 20 users or more.

Once the problem of getting cheap local access is solved, said Fleishmann, "then you look no different than if you're in downtown San Francisco."

Getting an economical line is the only real technical problem out in the rural environment, said Fleishmann, but he identifies having access to trained personnel as another possible problem in remote areas. "I can walk out of my office and stand on the corner and yell, 'UNIX, Internet--anybody want a job?--and I get 15 people raise their hands because there are a lot of people around here-- Palo Alto, Stanford, that area--that know about UNIX and routers and all that."

The irony is that in some rural areas communications links are essential for doing business. Said Fleishmann, "Some of the most heavy technology people I know are farmers in the Corn Belt. There are guys sitting in $250,000 John Deere air-conditioned tractors who have cellular phones and pagers. Why? Because if they don't know what the commodity price is for their crop, they get screwed.

Internet Distribution Services is a Palo Alto company that develops World Wide Web servers for other companies. Fleishmann is giving a course called "World Wide Web Server Installation and Management" on Tuesday, November 7, at Wescon/95 in San Francisco.


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