From the Ether

Jason Philbrook is my Internet service provider in Maine.

In April 1995, Philbrook was a sophomore at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

His secret weapons were Pentiums running "shareware" called Linux. And he had a business plan for becoming midcoast Maine's first ISP.

Being a pundit, I don't read business plans. But Philbrook's father is a lobsterman out of Owls Head, where we summer. And he offered me "a wicked lobsta dinna."

I worried that Philbrook would find few people in Maine willing to pay for Internet access, that he would not support them satisfactorily from his dorm, and that he would soon be squashed by the big national ISPs.

By June 1995, despite my worries, Philbrook left college, founded Midcoast Internet Solutions (www.midcoast.com), and signed me up as a customer (see www.infoworld.com/metcalfe).

By July 1997, Philbrook had 2,800 customers, nine employees, six points of presence (POPs), 85 percent of a market only 5 percent penetrated, profitable annual growth of 33 percent, and a used red Jaguar (see www.infoworld.com/metcalfe).

Today, Midcoast prospers. It looks messy, but it's in new digs, offers local V.90 access to 4,500 customers from Bath to Belfast, and doubled its revenue during 1999.

Midcoast's financials are private, but Philbrook has replaced his old Jaguar with an older one -- a 1969 E-Type -- and a sporty new Saab.

What are Philbrook's secrets? He still uses Linux, by Red Hat, in which he owns stock. He offers two dial-in numbers, one for each of the slightly incompatible V.90 modems people use a lot. Midcoast makes a profit after installing customer PCs onto the Internet for free. And Philbrook helps out in surrounding communities.

Midcoast depends on Bell Atlantic for telephone facilities. Philbrook says that the monopoly is behaving itself, except he just requested five new ISDN Primary Rate Interfaces and has to wait an estimated 60 days for installation.

Philbrook's long-range plan is to expand V.90 only in territories already served, to focus on developing access alternatives, to provision wireless access for other ISPs, and to become a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) offering Internet telephone services.

Midcoast will soon offer Digital Subscriber Lines. My access will go up in speed six times and down in cost four times -- can't wait.

But the big news at Midcoast is wireless. Philbrook already has nine radio towers and over 70 wireless customers. They get 1Mbps Internet after paying less than $1,000 for installation and $50 per month, plus $8 per month for each additional computer. The service is fast, cheap, and rock solid, Philbrook says.

Philbrook's hardware is from BreezeCOM (www.breezecom.com). It is IEEE 802.11 Wireless Ethernet in the 2.4-GHz band. (Note: 2.4GHz is a carrier frequency, not a bandwidth, not a bit rate.) Philbrook is as enthusiastic about BreezeCOM as he is about Linux, which is very.

Midcoast uses omni-directional 2.4-GHz antennas to offer two-way 1Mbps wireless access within 15 miles line of sight. Directional antennas replace T1 for hauling traffic back to Midcoast's POPs. And soon Midcoast plans to carry voice over IP (VOIP).

But Midcoast is not yet a CLEC. Philbrook says Midcoast's application was submitted six months ago. He'll probably need a lawyer.

Philbrook rattles off competitors who have been "consolidated." These competitors were poorly run companies that had to sell out cheap, he says.

However, Midcoast is profitable and growing, so Philbrook rejects the low offers he receives monthly. He is open to selling, but for the right price, and suitors bearing inflated Internet stocks need not apply.

Visit Midcoast's "lobstercam" in a trap on the bottom of the harbor in Spruce Head, Maine, at www.midcoast.com/lobcam.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe lives, summers, and camps in Maine. You will find an archive of his columns and an invitation to get them weekly via e-mail at www.infoworld.com/metcalfe.

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