Local Internet access goes from famine to feast
WILLMAR -- In late 1995, Bennett Office Technologies went online as the area's first commercial Internet service provider.
"Back then, we thought dial-up was the cat's meow," said Russ Bennett, owner of what was then called Bennett Office Products.
Dial-up service allows users to access the Internet over telephone lines using a modem connected to their computer.
As demand for Internet access grew, Bennett extended his service from Willmar to such communities as Olivia, Litchfield, Belgrade, Brooten and Prinsburg.
At its height, Bennett's service had 5,000 dial-up customers, he recalled during a recent interview.
A slim majority of local households with Internet access continue to access the world wide network of computer networks via dial-up, but it is the slowest of the now numerous alternatives that have sprung up in the area since Bennett opened his first nine lines to customers.
Today customers can have higher-speed access to the Internet through the cable that brings television into their homes, through their telephone via digital subscriber lines that don't interfere with phone calls and through the air in a variety of ways.
And Bennett is pretty much out of the Internet business.
Bennett Office Technologies represents a variety of companies that offer Internet access in every from dial-up to wireless.
But Bennett says his company is now putting much of its time into helping businesses establish and use private data networks. Such networks may use some of the same computer programs as the Internet, but use fiber-optic cables that aren't part of the Internet.
Fiber-optic cables are the data equivalent of water mains, which carry large amounts of information -- for the Internet or other purposes -- transmitted via light.
One of the hottest new applications to be used on private networks is Internet protocol telephones.
While using software and hardware similar to voice over Internet phone systems like Vonage or Skype, IP phones can take advantage of private networks, which Bennett says are more stable and reliable.
"The biggest benefit is that you can have one cable to your desk and use your computer as your hub of communications," Bennett said.
The Internet, on the other hand, is only as strong as its weakest link and, Bennett said, there are some weak links out there.
Don Heath, a Willmar native and former president of the Internet Society, says the Internet is becoming stronger all the time.
The Internet Society serves an international organization for global coordination and cooperation on Internet issues.
Running the society involved a lot travel for Heath, which gave him the opportunity to see how different countries adopted the Internet.
"Some Third World countries leapfrogged ahead of developed countries," Heath said. "They hadn't sunk a lot of capital into existing technology that held them back.
"I think that it's the same thing happened in rural areas and they've jumped ahead," Heath added.
"I live on Lake Andrew and there's (fiber-optic cable) practically to my door," Heath said.
Besides allowing users to Google a crossword puzzle question and get nearly every possible answer in the world, there are practical benefits to the Internet's increased accessibility and speed, Heath said.
There are businesses in the area that rely at least as much on their Internet Web site addresses for business as they do on traditional mail, he said.
"I wonder how many people there are in the area who have made a business of selling things on eBay?" Heath asked.
Although he had no statistics, Heath mentioned a couple cases he knew of and a recent Reader's Digest article that indicated some people were making all or most of their income making such sales.
There will continue to be some specialized reasons for using private data networks, Heath said, but, as the Internet becomes stronger and more accessible, some of those reasons may become almost unnecessary.