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Hot on the Web

Consolidation hits the ISP market

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 28, 2003
(Issue 2113, Linux – Even More Better)

After about 14, 15 years, I'm in the market for a new Internet Service Provider.

Having been online since before the Internet was public, I had initially relied on a local Bulletin Board Service, or BBS, for my e-mail. Actually, in the mid-1980s, I had accounts – with e-mail – on more than a dozen San Diego-area BBSs. While most were local e-mail accounts (meaning onlyother users on that same BBS could send me e-mail), a handful of these accounts included some sort of larger networked access – whether FidoNet or another BBS-based computer network.

FidoNet and these other BBS-based networks were slow and imperfect. They were based on the concept of having each BBS automatically call one or two other BBSs a day and exchange e-mail headed up- and downstream. It often took several days to a week to move your e-mail message across the country, but it was free and – at the time – amazing.

Then my roommate discovered one BBS that provided real Internet e-mail access – back when the 'Net was mostly off-limits. Of course, the World Wide Web didn't exist yet, and the Internet was much, much smaller than it is now – being limited to university, government and military domains. Still, most large universities were on the 'Net, and so if you had friends in college – particularly in the engineering or hard sciences programs – odds were decent they had an e-mail account.

So for those of us civilians out there, gaining an Internet account was a plum to be sought after with passion.

A couple of programming geeks out in San Diego's East County had started a BBS called the People's Message System. As an acronym for a dial-up BBS service, PMS was doomed. It was soon changed to PdBMS – and to this day I can't tell you what that stood for.

And by the late '80s, PdBMS had morphed into the vastly more powerful People Net, or PNET.

It was still a dial-up BBS running on a PC in Bill Blue's garage. But Morgan Davis – who had earlier written the ProLine BBS software for the Apple ][ platform – created something special with the PNET environment, not the least of which was the ability to tap into the Internet e-mail system (a task he'd first accomplished with the ProLine package, which also allowed Apple ][ owners to even bring in Usenet newsgroup feeds into their BBS).

At that time, I got my first Internet e-mail account –, soon shortened to Blue and cohort Davis had also been looking at ways to provide connectivity to the soon-to-be-public Internet, and so had registered the domain.

So was an e-mail address I've had ever since. While I also had my current address for the past few years, was still there – and still used by old friends who'd never bothered to update their address books.

They'll have to, now. Bill Blue sold CTS to Allegiance Telecom a few years back, when it had become one of the largest ISPs in the county. Got a pretty penny for it, too.

And Allegiance was smart enough to keep Blue and Davis around to run this ISP and hosting service. At least at first.

But Blue left last year, and Davis was recently laid off – along with most of CTS' old customers.

Allegiance has decided it doesn't want to be in the ISP business anymore – an odd turn for a company that dropped hundreds of millions of dollars in acquiring regional ISPs across the country just a few years ago.

I received a certified letter recently stating that Allegiance/ was getting out of the DSL business. Now I've learned they're also getting out of the Web hosting business and dial-up business as well. Heck, the latest word is they're not even going to keep their web hosting customers – wanting only to provide T-1 and colocation services.

Which is a pain, and makes you wonder why Allegiance bought these ISPs in the first place.

Here in San Diego, there are still a few locally owned independent ISPs. But where outfits like CTS once owned the market, today most folks are going online via AOL, MSN and Earthlink or their local cable TV or telephone provider.

This growing consolidation of ISP services into a handful of companies means there are fewer choices for consumers. Ultimately, it will mean higher prices with worse service.

And for one customer in particular, it will mean the end of having the same e-mail address for over a decade.