Farming the Internet

Local dial-up Internet access came to northern Maine in early February—thanks to the state’s oldest service provider, Agate, and the local farmer’s association, Maine Farmer’s Exchange. It’s strange how none of the banks, insurance companies, or other professional organizations could do this. It took farmers’ foresight to get the job done right.

My dilemma—slogging along America Online at 2400 bps or paying heavy long-distance fees—is fairly typical of rural users: the folks who need the information most pay premium for it. I was lucky enough to get on as a tester for AT&T WorldNet; this meant free access. But the network was slow via the 800 number, and I wore down a spot on my desk drumming my fingers waiting for Web pages to load. 

This is not unusual for national providers using a toll-free number and one reason why I do not recommend this method of access. Direct dial to a national provider is much better. But small, local operations can sometimes deliver more bandwidth—meaning 28.8 kbps is more likely to be just that. The $30 for 30 hours folks up here pay is inline with other local-area providers, but is more than most national operations. There, the average is $20 for unlimited access. If you would like to go with a national service, I recommend either AT&T WorldNet or the IBM Global Network (Advantis). Both are competitively priced, with unlimited access for 20 bucks a month. For a quick look at Internet providers worldwide, visit The List.

There are some folks who prefer on-line services for Internet access, but I am mostly against them. The cost of access is usually much higher than a straight Internet connection. Look for problems rendering forms, ultra-cool frames, Java applets, and ActiveX. Sites Netscape Navigator brings up in five seconds, says one study, take AOL’s ver. 2.5 browser up to a minute to load. Like we all have time to waste drumming our fingers.

CompuServe and the Microsoft Network (MSN) are the better bets if you have to travel the Infobahn via an on-line service. Both use true PPP connections (no need to know what it means just that you need it) for fast travel. Pricing is better as well, and you can use the browser of your choice. MSN naturally works best with Microsoft Internet Explorer, but I have used Netscape Navigator without a hitch (the browsers do battle over which should be the default if both are installed). You may also want to check out Prodigy’s new Internet service. By piggy-backing on Advantis, Prodigy offers about 600 dial-up points nationwide, making it more widely available than almost any other national provider.

CompuServe, MSN, and Prodigy are all migrating to the Web—but they are not the first service to do so. AT&T Business Network closed its proprietary on-line network during the summer and moved all content to the Internet. It is something to see. No other business offering packs more useful services—well, maybe, CompuServe—or organizes Internet business links better. Business Network content providers include: the Bureau of National Affairs; Business Travel News; CNN Interactive; Cowles Business Media; Cowles New Media; Dow Jones Business Information Services; Dun & Bradstreet Information Services; Entrepreneurial EDGE; Entrepreneur Magazine; Guerrilla Marketing International; Investext Industry Reports; Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.; Nightly Business Report; Standard & Poor’s.; and TRW Business Information Services.

Free news and information pages are popping up all over the Web, so unless you need Business Network’s highly specialized services, you should consider one of these. Some Internet providers subscribe to ClariNet, one of the Infobahn’s oldest and best news sources, which means you get free access with your monthly dial-up service. Organized into more traditional newsgroups, ClariNet content is both broad and specific. It’s one of my favorite places to dig for small business news, but I can also read general headlines. Few Internet providers offer full access to the service, though.

The newer breed of Web-oriented information services are modeled after NewsPage. Though it lacks ClariNet’s depth, NewsPage serves up a healthy portion of news and information—and it is one of the very best places on the Net to track specialized markets like banking, insurance, or manufacturing. About 60 percent of the content is free and about 10 percent is available on a pay-as-you-go basis. To get at the remaining 30 percent means shelling out a meager $6.95 a month—$3.95 if you don’t mind being on every mailing list on the planet. I highly recommend the service, which recently added Personal NewsPage, a customized version for subscribers..

A similar service was launched this summer by search engine InfoSeek. InfoSeek Personal delivers up news and information on subjects you choose, along with newsgroup postings for those topics you designate. I use it as my default start page. A number of companies, including Netscape and Microsoft, have innovative personal pages, but InfoSeek delivers—a lot. For now the service is available at no charge.

More robust is a competing service launched by Internet search maverick Yahoo. MyYahoo is similar to Personal InfoSeek with one difference: no access Internet newsgroups. But MyYahoo has a nice advantage: an add-on program that will run a ticker tape across the Windows 95 or NT 4 taskbar. Weather, stocks, and headlines can be available at a glance while you cruise the Web. Versions are available for both Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.01 and Netscape Navigator 2.01 and above, so make sure you get the right one. If that isn’t a compelling enough reason to use MyYahoo, may this is: the service’s GetLocal feature delivers up local links and yellow pages for any U.S. area—including far-flung northern Maine.

Another scrolling toolbar option, available for both Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, is being served up by IBM. InfoMarket culls news from virtually every source thinkable and delivers it via the Windows 95 or NT 4 taskbar. The interface is not pretty, but the service and software are functional and useful. Newsfeeds update about every 10 minutes.

If you like jazzy news delivery with lots of multimedia, try the PointCast Network. PointCast is the newest breed of Net news provider. It is and always will be free—and the service takes the best of satellite and interactive technologies and combines them with traditional Internet content. You can use PointCast’s software outright to access the service, or as a plug-in for Netscape Navigator.

On the horizon: Expect good things from NBC’s partnership with Microsoft. The first offering—Decision ’96, an election news site covering both national and local campaigns—led to MSNBC, the highly controversial, very exciting Internet/cable news venture. Though it has stiff competition from CNN, the Washington Post, and others, the Microsoft/NBC venture is the onset of information juggernauts. Looks like the farmers brought us online just in time.

Photo Credit: Ted Van Pelt

Editors Note: On July 27, 2017, this post was recovered, using Wayback Machine, from a snapshot of my first website, at strangely called: “Blue Sky, Business, and the Maine Outback”. Links were removed because many are broken.