IN THE NETPLEX

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Footfall: Like a huge meteor falling into the sea causing catastrophic tidal waves and raising global temperature, AT&T's dial-up access offering has forever altered the competitive climate of the Internet. Other long distance phone companies that sat on the sidelines are scrambling to fit the word "Internet" into their product lines.


Many Internet service providers are riding the shock waves to gain a cheap five minutes of media attention. California-based NetCom's announcement to seek cable and telephone company alliances in the wake of AT&T's market entry either translates to "We've been working on it, but we need to say something to keep the stockholders happy," or "Oops! We've blown it and we're looking for some friends." Similarly, MCI's trumpeting of its previously planned network upgrade from T3s to OC-3s (45 Mbps to 155 Mbps), followed by Herndon, Va.-based PSINet's OC-3, me-too comments indicates a certain amount of panic. Certainly, UUNET Technologies Inc., Fairfax, Va.; Digital Express Group, Beltsville, Md.; and other service providers have similar plans in the works for such upgrades as a natural evolution of their infrastructure rather than a dramatic change-or-die necessity.

UUNET's pull-back [or bail out, depending on your view] of a second round of stock provided the most drama. UUNET news releases painted a colorful picture of being caught in a Securities and Exchange Commission-mandated quiet period before the stock sale and AT&T's consumer market entry. In reality, UUNET's stock price, having soared on Netscape's coattails to a high of $98 a share before gliding down to earth, had already slid from $40 to $27 a share in the weeks before AT&T's announcement. UUNET's real worry was in further diluting the value of its currently issued shares. AT&T provided an elegant justification for withdrawing the second stock offering.

Erol's killer? What's better than $12 per month for unlimited dial-up access? Free. Two companies are kicking off advertising-funded, unlimited e-mail services this month, while a third company is looking at an advertising-sponsored World Wide Web browser service. The catch is that subscribers must reveal demographic information, such as age, gender, job title, income and race, and tolerate targeted advertising slides and e-mail each time they log on.

War of the words: It's a sad day in Reston when Vint Cerf, MCI senior vice president of data architecture and one of the founding fathers of the Internet, is rolled out to talk trash. "AT&T seems to be building its Internet service out of newspaper headlines. MCI's service is built on a foundation of fiber," Cerf said. Of course, he didn't say how MCI's new marketing plans for dial-up Internet are a knee-jerk reaction to AT&T's successful rollout of WorldNet. And the high-profile, March 18 announcement managed to cover MCI's same-day punchout from its joint venture with News Corp.

Cerf also didn't mention MCI's freeze on new Internet leased line connections through April. According to disgruntled customers, delivery dates kept slipping as MCI sales reps admitted an oversubscription problem.

Those IPOs keep going and going: Search engines and index firms Lycos, Boston; Yahoo!, Mountain View, Calif.; and Excite! all have filed to go public, while Mindspring, a regional Internet service provider in Atlanta, has its stock out on the street at $8 a share. Locally, Reston, Va.-based CyberCash watched its stock price blast up to $64 a share on frantic speculation before settling down to a more reasonable $32 per share.

What a whopper: The Computer Directory in Monday's Washington Post Business section sometimes provides more entertainment than any of its "WashTech" columns. Companies that started selling Internet (literally) overnight are advertising T3s for the low-low price of $12,000 to $15,000. Any company that will pay $144,000 in a year will never, ever buy T3 service straight out of the newspaper without checking references, infrastructure and quality of service. Although we have heard several tall tales about T1s being put on credit cards (performed to boost frequent flier miles), T3 service is unlikely to become an impulse buy.

Internet City's intrepid reporter covers the hottest section of Washington's information technology market. Tips and tattles are always welcome at technews@technews.com; please write "Tales of the City" in the subject line.


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