With all the hype about the "Information Super Highway," it seems natural for many businesses to see opportunities for roadside stands, or perhaps to build their own on-ramp to that data speedway and become an Internet Access Provider (IAP). If you've considered such an option, you may be confused about the steps required. Read on and explore that process.
A good first step is to check out one of the dozens of books about the Internet; definitely get onto the Internet itself, perhaps via Delphi or AOL using the free introductions. You may find that there's no local connection and decide to provide one yourself. Now the fun starts!
Don't imagine you can get a loaded PC, find a bunch of off-the- shelf software, and set yourself up in business. As you go further in your research, the technical the terms will get more confusing terms like Telnet, FTP, WWW, WAIS, ISDN, T1 or SLIP; you may begin to wonder if all Internet Access Providers are run by rocket scientists.
No magic answer
A degree in rocket science is not necessary to starting up an IAP. On the other hand, you won't be able to find the book titled: IAP-ing for Dummies; it doesn't exist. Because there is no well-defined procedure for setting up IAP operations, many potential providers conclude this business is not their cup of tea. For the diligent few, however, being an IAP can be a good business; quite a few others will find that _server_ offerings are the best way to take advantage of the Internet in their business.
We will explores some of the issues involved in using the Internet in your business, by reviewing what is involved in creating a provider service, and by looking at some of the more typical functions and services that can be put on the Internet, even without running a provider.
What is a provider ?
There are two main types of Internet providers: access providers and service providers. An access provider deals in the actually phone and computer links to the Internet, while the service provider uses an access provider's computer to offer customized information of their own or of clients. Think of an access provider as a magazine publisher and the service provider as the ad agency or the writers.
Who needs a provider?
The first and most important issue that must be resolved is a basic business decision: who will buy what you can provide. Once you have defined your market and identified the needs of that market, then you can move on to technical considerations such as the type of connection to the Internet, the scale of the computer needed and the number of phone lines your provider site must accommodate.
How to conduct your market analysis? Ah, there's the rub! You'll need to be very ingenious about defining and researching your market, for it is a field with no real market statistics. Such an environment provides the perfect opportunity for a new venture, although possibly risky. The ideal approach is to have excess capacity at start-up and adjust as you see who becomes customers, and who stays customers. This requires financial staying power so you do not rely on cash flow from sales to live. Few new business people in any industry, however, have this capacity - for those that do, this is even a better opportunity.
For those living in a real world without endless resources, however, there is hope. Start by getting yourself a full Internet connection and finding areas frequented by those you expect to be potential customers. Get into the trenches and think like your own customer; learn about their concerns and problems and decide how you can solve them. If you want to be a provider, learn what being a provider is about: contact providers in other areas who are already doing what you have planned.
Less intimidating, and less costly, than setting up an IAP is setting up a service provider on an existing access provider's host computer (e.g., a Web Page or file transfer site). Service providers have the best chance of offering what is most valuable to their markets right at the start if proper research is conducted. As with access providers, potential service providers should take the important first steps of frequenting the appropriate newsgroups and contacting existing similar providers.
What type of Internet connection do you need?
Once you have defined your market and your product, the next issue to consider is the type of Internet connection required to service that market. There are a number of different levels of Internet access; the level required depends upon the services you wish to offer your customers.
The highest Internet access level is a net backbone site. Even the terms in this simple description are fairly technical; that's the point: a net backbone site is a major, highly technical computer operation. If you are the typical reader, don't plan on starting an Internet backbone site without hiring a significant, expert staff and probably investing in excess of seven figures. An Internet backbone site is like being a long lines phone company.
Next down on the scale of access complexity is a local provider, consisting of a computer system with a number of incoming phone lines and with a high-speed dedicated phone link to a backbone site. The phone lines are used by local customers to call to the provider's computer and through this computer gain access to the Internet. This is a simplistic description, since local can truly mean local phone lines, or a wide area dial-in net like Sprintnet or Tymnet. Again, a variety of options exist, involving fairly sophisticated computer systems. A local provider servicing a small area can use a 486 or Pentium, often running UNIX or NT; providers needing to offer access to a larger area will need a larger "workstation" system like those made by Sun Microsystems or HP, or a larger IBM system.
There is a wide range of computer options and Internet connections that a local provider can use, mainly selected based on the size of the market attacked and the provider's financial scale. Any provider's customers will have the same type of Internet connectivity and access to the same Internet services (e.g., FTP, WWW, WAIS, Gopher, etc.); however, full-time access to the Internet may at times provide a higher quality connection and greater success in making that connection.
The least complex connection is that offered by the Freenets and Bulletin Board Services (BBSs) with Internet access. This type of connection is usually achieved with a smaller PC or Mac and standard 14.4 or 28.8 baud Internet connection. Many of these are non-commercial operations and hobbyist-run, or the result of community projects or organizations. These services are typically used by only those interested in a simple, inexpensive approach to receiving email or accessing newsgroups.
About Service Providers
Another type of Internet provider that will take on more importance as more users come onto the Internet is service providers. This is a new area for commercial use that is open for major development. A server is software, run on an access provider's Internet host computer, that responds to actions from individual users on the Internet. Servers handle functions from email to FTP functions to WWW access. A "service" provider will manage such a server for a group of customers and usually will assist the customers in preparing the content to place on the server. In addition, managing can include processing orders from Web page forms, and providing reports of activity of Web readers.
The potential for server providers lies in the question: What are all those users doing on the net? There are thousands of sites running FTP servers for file access, Web servers with great graphics, and WAIS servers with useful text databases; millions of people access these sites each day. So why aren't there tons of service providers on the net already? Most of the servers on the net are free, and as such do not generate revenue for their creators; there is much to be determined regarding making a server into a commercial service. That process is being explored today as more services are offered and as clever entrepreneurs (like yourselves) find services to sell and ways to sell them. That what the Internet is all about: Potential.
What can you do?
As discussed, read a lot, study a lot, use your imagination, and try things. Develop a clear idea of what your market needs and try finding experimental projects to test the various services you plan to offer. In this way you can develop expertise in the areas you are exploring and perhaps even find a partner or customer who wants the services enough to pay for them.
The Internet provides a wealth of opportunity to get involved in the forefront of a phenomenon of this technical age of communication. There are a wide range of options for doing business on the Internet, ranging from the more capital intensive provider to the more creative Web page agency and lots in between. You've already taken the first step toward researching your involvement. If you've decided this field is for you, you've an exciting time ahead of you -- read on!
If you are ready for more - you can get a copy of the Provider Guidebook from On the Net: