As is the case with most heavily hyped phenomena, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of the Internet. Some see broad, sunlit vistas of new opportunity; others deem it yet another threat to the national character. Some cite it as a new economy, while others regard it as the same old shell game. There’s so much cross-prediction and counter-prognostication that it’s hard to really know what’s going on, but some area people have positioned themselves on the leading edge of this new and often misunderstood trend.

Todd and Tracy Copelevitz were among the very first families in Dallas to have their Lakewood home wired for high-speed ISDN access, a task so new that their home became an informal schoolroom for Bell supervisors and managers.

“It took them about a week to do it right,” Tracy recalls. “We had people hanging around just to see how it would be done.”

Both of them have been computer literate for years; most may remember Todd from his column on cyberspace that ran in the Dallas Morning News until he left the paper in to start Wave Base 9, a Web site design company. Still, they were impressed with how handy their Internet savvy was last May when the YMCA was considering building a facility in nearby Winsted Park.

“We got together with some neighbors and decided that we didn’t like the idea and were willing to take the YMCA on over it,” Todd says. “So some of us passed out fliers while I sat down with a programmer and built a website that laid things out very clearly. Within a day, we had a website — Two days later we had a press conference and over 600 people showed up. After that, we were getting thousands of visits to the site daily. The media used it.”

The Copelevitzes firmly believe that their Internet know-how gave them an advantage in their dealings with the YMCA. “At first there were only six of us, without any money to speak of, but we got people on board very fast. We were able to respond very quickly–and with a very organized front–to whatever the Y was doing without having to call another press conference. In the end, they stumbled. In fact, an official from the YMCA told me that one of the things that convinced them to change their plans was the speed with which the neighborhood responded. Now we’re working with them on their plans to build at the site of the Gaston Bazaar, and one of their first requests was that we help them put up a website.”

Todd and Tracy both believe that attitude is as–if not more–important than aptitude. Tracy took an idea for a newsletter about shopping and turned that into America On Line’s Power Shopping site. “I went into a meeting with AOL with a sketch on the back of an envelope,” Tracy says.

“My idea was for a group of non-professional writers contributing their experiences, everything from ‘this place ripped me off’ to the best unknown parking spots at the Galleria. For a while there it was one of AOL’s biggest traffic draws.”

“The fact is,” Todd says, “that using the Internet isn’t necessarily a matter of technical expertise, but of having a mindset that says you going to do something with it.”

Both of them agree that the Internet is only going to keep growing. “The Internet is an amorphous, living creature that changes and adapts,” Todd says. “It’s going to change the way we view information. It will steadily become less of an elite thing and more of a tool for the masses. I think history will look back on the Internet as an incredible innovation with an effect far greater than that of any other medium. The printing press broadcast text and pictures; radio–sound. TV broadcasts sound and image, but the Internet can transmit raw data, text, sounds and images. Plus, before, you had to have a printing press, or a TV station, or a radio antenna, which were expensive and kept publishing as a one-way process: from a few people out to many. Now, everybody can be a publisher, and information will flow freely between many people.”

“Just the other night, I was just clicking around, and I found this pest control site that had just a wealth of information, and that led me–eventually–to this great new cat litter,” Tracy adds. “Now, that may sound trivial, but it gets us to what’s coming, and that’s the realization that for corporations, communities, individuals and neighborhoods, there are pockets of valuable information out there that previously had been overlooked or available only to a few. That’s the real value of the Internet: the way it democratizes information.”

The symbol of this democratization for most here in Dallas is a simple phone number: 1- 800-BE-A-GEEK, the numbers that Internet America’s late-evening TV commercials exhort the viewer to dial in order to become part of the “Internet revolution. Originally of fairly basic production values, the new generation of spots is slick, graphically intense, and sophisticated–mirroring the changes that have occurred at the company since its founding at the end of 1994.

Internet America is an Internet service provider, or ISP–part of the infrastructure that supports websites like Todd and Tracy’s Winsted Park site. With over 50,000 subscribers and 96 employees, IA was ranked the Metroplex’s sixth largest ISP by the September 1998 Dallas Business Journal. Internet America is almost certainly in the top 10 percent of ISPs nationally, but more remarkable still is that, in an environment where losing money is almost an acceptable part of doing business, Internet America is profitable.

“We’re an access provider, and we try to stick to that,” CEO and president Mike Maples says of IA’s business strategy. “In this business it’s real easy to get unfocused, to end up where you do a lot of things not very well.”

Those TV commercials are another aspect of IA’s approach. “Our marketing is very aggressive, because the basis of our plan is to get–and keep–a high percentage of customers in an area,” Maples explains. “When you can do that, you begin to realize tremendous efficiencies from a networking, cost and customer service standpoint.

“Because of that, we concentrate on getting high user densities in a few markets at a time. If you can get that density, you can actually make money, which is fairly unusual on this scale. Most of our competitors have never really made money, because they’re too spread out.”

As part of this plan, IA wants to be a “super regional” ISP. In areas where it doesn’t have facilities, the company will provide access through one of the approximately 4,000 smaller ISPs that are scattered throughout the country. Maples doesn’t expect that number to remain that high for long, however. “The ISP situation right now is very fragmented, with most of your companies being very small, lacking the critical mass required to grow. Our next step is going to be to go out there and aggressively acquire them.”

Those smaller entities aren’t free, however, and to build up a war chest for such a campaign, IA went public last December, trading on NASDAQ under the symbol GEEK. Although the stock performed sluggishly at first, by Christmas it had increased its value by an impressive 42%. The bet that Maples and IA stockholders are placing is that the spread of Internet awareness–and the “democratization” that Todd Copelevitz spoke of–will continue unabated.

“I think that the world has finally realized that the Internet is here to stay,” Maples says. “The number of people who want to sign up is still increasing, and more importantly, their demographics are changing–moving away from the very tech-savvy and towards the mainstream. Right now, we have more people age 55 and up signing on than 15 to 25; currently, almost 45% of our new sign-ups are women. That makes it easier to raise capital and grow.”

Currently, IA is pushing into major Texas markets–Longview, Houston, Austin, San Antonio–but in a marketplace as fluid as this, you not only have to plan your own growth, but the growth of the service you’re offering. “The use the Internet is being put to is changing,” says Maples. “Right now, it’s mostly e-mail and a little bit of browsing. E-mail use is really exploding right now, but the continued growth and evolution of commerce is going to be the big thing. The applications that are out there are starting to include all sorts of commerce–banking, travel, financial services, and retailing, like–it could fundamentally change the way business works.

“The real growth opportunities, however, are in education; I think that the e-community isn’t taking advantage of it yet, but I think they’re beginning to become aware of what it could offer. Perhaps the parents of the kids will make that happen.”

Over Maples’ shoulder is a stunning thirtieth-floor view of west Dallas. Light glints off of windshields as cars wind their way between storefronts, banks, and apartments: entities that–if Maples’ intuitions are correct–will come to depend on the Internet to an ever-increasing degree.

“My favorite quote,” he says with a smile, “is that the Internet changes everything it touches. And it touches everything.”

Cruce Saunders’ view isn’t quite as spectacular as Maples’, but Ariesnet’s offices on the seventh floor of the Wells Fargo building still commands a nice view of the tree-lined heart of Lakewood. Ariesnet designs and maintains web sites–or “presence” in the jargon–serving approximately 40 customers that range from a proper English boarding school to a Vedic astrologer who bills himself as the Beverly Hills Love Guru. Assisting Saunders is a staff of seven and around 50 “virtual” freelancers and contract employees.

“What we’re doing in this particular phase of Internet development is converting a brick- and-mortar economy into a digital economy,” Cruce–who started Ariesnet in an apartment near Southern Methodist University “with a 386 and a phone” in 1994–explains. “While the Internet basically started out as ‘brochure ware’–here’s a picture, here’s a few facts, come see us–as it developed it became clear that companies could develop with the ‘Net, that it could be integrated not only with marketing, but with accounting, manufacturing, and distribution. That’s the direction we’re taking–of having a company with an open architecture that can be enabled through a web browser.”

The challenge as Saunders sees it is to unify two disparate entities–the information technology departments, with their emphasis on nuts and bolts, and PR agencies, which are often very creative. “Very rarely do those two seem to come together ,” Saunders notes.

Saunders moved to Dallas from Silicon Valley in California in order to attend SMU and was a bit more familiar with computers than many Dallasites. “The people here didn’t come from outside the net, looking to get in,” Saunders says. “We grew up with it. I remember when the Internet was just a bunch of geeks working in UNIX. It’s fascinating: The Internet has a life of its own. It’s an evolving presence that is snowballing at a rate that nobody can truly foresee, or even get their hands on. I very much feel like we’re being shaped by the Internet–not the other way around. We all live on Internet time, which moves very rapidly.”

Part of the challenge of such a hothouse environment is being adaptable. “It’s an educational process. Most clients start out wanting just a web presence–a site. The more educated the customer becomes, the more he wants, and we want to be with him or her as they evolve–we regard our customers as ongoing relationships. For example, we have a client–an L.A.-based video production company–and we initially just gave them a very creative web site. Now we’re working on a interface through which their customers can view the different versions of their videos as they go through the production process and contribute their feedback,” he says.

“We’re a tiny company, but we don’t plan on staying tiny for long. We have very big, hairy, audacious goals. Everybody is talking about huge amounts of capital and a Fortune 500 clientele, and I’m just wondering about the small-to-medium sized businesses. Right now we’re developing some proprietary systems that approach that market, and we’re very much looking for partners and investors.”

Saunders shares Copelevitz and Maples’ faith in the leveling effects of the Internet. “It’s all about results,” he says. “Age, color, distance–none of that matters. Even space and time have less relevance. It’s exciting, and at the same time a little scary.”

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