Internet boom changed life in northeast Indiana

The Web is a significant way to communicate, educate and do business.

By DOUG LeDUC, of The News-Sentinel

Kathy Trier didn't need a fortune teller to foresee the impact of the Internet. All it took was her early exposure to the global computer network.

The Internet and the World Wide Web it supports became commonplace in the '90s. But academic researchers and U.S. defense personnel used it for 20 years before quicker modems, more powerful and pervasive desktop computers and new software popularized it.

Four years ago, at about the same time many of today's Internet users were learning to send e-mail, Trier started using it to teach classes online.

"I don't know whether it's changed my life or not, but it has changed the way I teach," she said. "I don't do business the same way anymore. And most of my life is tied up with the computer in some fashion."

A growing number of northeast Indiana computer users could say the same. Estimates vary widely, but at least tens of millions of people have Internet access around the world.

The Internet Software Consortium reported 56.2 million computers were linked to the network as of July, up from 3.2 million in July 1994.

For Trier, growing popularity of the Internet offered a chance to reach students who might have no other way to attend classes.

Trier uses electronic mail for much of her communication with members of professional organization committees, and with students outside of her regular class and office hours.

She has found it easier to enlist speakers from out of town for panel discussions she

conducts on the Internet, because they don't have to come to Fort Wayne to participate.

In 1996, she began teaching classes over the Internet, where students take tests online and are graded for participation in supervised chat groups that discuss assigned reading material.

Library leaps online

Allen County Public Library's free Internet access started on a handful of computers in its reader services and business departments, and has since extended to 250 computers at its downtown facility and various branches.

Downtown, "we have a computer center where people can come in and get net access for a two-hour period, and it has computers they can use for word processing," said spokeswoman Rosann Coomer. "We're looking to expand that because (demand for) it seems to be getting bigger all the time."

The library also became a major sponsor of Fort Wayne Community Net, a nonprofit group that supports the dissemination of information on local government and community groups in Fort Wayne and Allen County.

And it developed an impressive site on the World Wide Web, with an online catalog of library resources and links to family history Web sites of interest to patrons of the library's extensive genealogical collection.

The site directs Internet users to information sources that have been screened for thoroughness and reliability.

Evaluating information resources is an important part of the library staff's training, and the expertise it shares isn't tainted with the bias of a commercial Internet search engine.

"The institution has no profit motive," said Jeffrey Krull, library director. "We're not trying to sell you anything."

A gold rush and court fights

As interest in the Internet boomed in the 1990s, a host of local-access providers emerged, beginning in 1995.

Fort Wayne Newspapers was among the first large, well-established businesses in town to begin pursuing that new source of revenue. It staked out its territory in 1996, attracting an audience to fortwayne.com with local news.

The spirit of the Wild West and its gold rush pervaded much of the nascent Internet industry.

Countless charges of claim-jumping were hurled among competitors.

Some of the most widely publicized charges have yet to be resolved through a lengthy anti-trust suit against Microsoft, which dominates the desktop computer software industry.

In Fort Wayne, lawsuits filed by local Internet businesses examined whether a competitor can, without permission, superimpose its own Internet address and advertisements over copyrighted content on a newspaper's Web site.

The suits drew national attention, but eventually were settled without resolving the issue.

"The conduct complained of by the plaintiffs has stopped, and the defendants remain free to create direct hypertext links to plaintiff's Web sites," said officials with Fort Wayne Newspapers, one of the parties to the suits.

Web pays off for entrepreneur

High potential for rewards and low barriers to entry encouraged a lot of area Internet entrepreneurship. Steve Carnes, a manufacturer's sales representative from Auburn who devotes much of his leisure time to investment research and day-trading, immersed himself in the Internet when he heard it could be a powerful investment tool.

This year, he sold MBMagic, an Internet message board venture he co-founded, to Cosmos.com in return for partial ownership of the major national Internet portal.

Carnes, who had not used a computer modem before 1996, now considers himself constantly online and is obsessive about checking e-mail. It's the last thing he does at night, the first thing he does when he wakes in the morning, and an automatic reflex if he awakens during the night.

He's never met in person the California programmer who was his partner in the development of MBMagic, but Carnes said he has been very comfortable with their business relationship.

Site as sweet as chocolate

Tim and Cathy Beere also developed an Internet business without any background in computers, software or computer networks, but they did it by hiring the necessary expertise.

The couple owns DeBrand Fine Chocolates. The Internet interested them as a means of expanding sales without increasing overhead beyond their operations in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.

That was a little more than two years ago. "Now, the fastest-growing part of our business is the mail-order business," Tim Beere said. Orders from the Internet constitute about 25 percent of that business, up from 10 percent last year.

Establishing a Web site shoppers can use to order the product enabled the company to reach a broader geographic area and do business around-the-clock, he said. In addition to minimizing overhead costs, it eliminated the challenge of finding additional employees in a tight labor market.

With DeBrand's Internet business, "we've found half of the orders we got were (from people) surfing the Web who found our site and were impressed enough to order it, having never tried the chocolates before," Beere said.

That kind of new business supports efforts to expand the company's customer base, especially when orders are made as gifts, he said. That's because "the person who receives it is very pleased, so they in turn become a gift giver to someone else."

Hardware and hard drives

Establishing a presence on the Web ahead of competitors has given many companies a decided edge over competitors in Internet retailing, and Do it Best Corp. moved this year to make the most of its advantage.

The locally based, member-owned wholesale distributor of hardware and lumber put up a Web site in May 1996 and began encouraging stores in the cooperative to put up their own Web sites.

The local Tek Interactive Group Internet services company helped Do it Best design sites with a public section for marketing and a private section for communications between the cooperative and its members.

This summer, Do it Best began an effort to get all the sites upgraded for Internet retailing, and to encourage members to put up sites if they don't already have them.

At its fall conference and trade show the cooperative displayed a sign: "Miss e-commerce this Christmas, and you'll miss it every Christmas."

Phone lines proliferate

Growing Internet use was among the factors that contributed to 800 percent growth in the number of GTE phone lines used by Fort Wayne area businesses with more than one line since the start of 1991.

The number of residential lines grew 25 percent during that period, said Mike Berry, spokesman for local GTE operations.

Population growth, a healthy economy, proliferation of fax machines, and new products, such as digital business service and high-speed data lines, also helped increase the number of phone lines here, he said.

But "new technology has been driving a lot of it," Berry said. "No one knew in '91 how much information could be transported (over phone lines)."

Demand is so great that the supply of 219 numbers may run out early next year. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission is considering proposals to add additional area codes in northern Indiana.

Use of the Internet for recreation, education and business purposes has fueled the expansion of FWI Internet from an enterprise with a couple of employees at its start in 1995 to a business with a work force of 20.

The locally based Internet access provider, which once limited its customer base to Fort Wayne, now serves subscribers in Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties.

Recent research shows 38 percent of Allen County households have Internet access, said Lee Kelso, who directs FWI marketing. And "as more people get access to the Internet, its usability increases."

Corporate Web sites are common, and a number of businesses who use the Internet heavily have decided "it doesn't matter where you are if can teleconference, telecommute and share files," he said.

Faster links arriving daily

The last months of the decade have seen competition for high-speed Internet users ensue among businesses offering it through varying technologies.

Each of the technologies offer the speed of a T-1 line or better, and a T-1 is 27 times the speed of a regular phone line connection.

GTE offered high-speed Internet access here for a number of years, targeting the service for business.

About a year ago it introduced a high-speed product for residential users. And this summer, Fort Wayne's primary provider of local phone service lowered the price and raised the speed available through the residential product, to half that of a T-1 line.

FWI Internet rolled out wireless high-speed Internet access in Fort Wayne and Columbia City in September, after about a year of product development.

Initially, the company is targeting businesses with the service, but eventually it plans to introduce a version for residential users.

Comcast rolled out high-speed Internet access last week over its network of television signal cabling and fiber-optic lines.

Images that used to require a minute or more to call up on a computer screen from a Web site over regular phone lines pop up almost instantly with the high-speed access.

Local Comcast officials boast it could take less time to find a person or business online than through a phone book.

And as Cristi Cly, marketing coordinator for Comcast Online, outlines its promotional push for 2000, her goal has a familiar ring.

"What we're trying to do is revolutionize how people use their computer."

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