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June 25, 1995


By Timothy C. Barmann

Log On America of Providence is offering, with restrictions, free Internet e-mail so it can ''share the 21st century with Rhode Island businesses."

DAVE PAOLO HAS MADE an offer that's difficult to refuse.

As president of a local company that connects customers to the Internet, the worldwide computer network, he is giving away free electronic mail accounts to any Rhode Island business that wants one.

What's the catch?

Aside from a few restrictions, there isn't one, said Paolo, president of Log On America of Providence.

In a news release, Paolo says he wants to "share the 21st century with Rhode Island businesses" so they can "communicate in global markets."

Electronic mail is one of the most powerful and widely available resources of the Internet. In seconds, a message can be transmitted across town or around the world. All the major on-line services provide mail gateways to the Internet, as do a number of Internet access providers and even small hobbyist-run computer bulletin boards.

E-mail is usually offered as part of a package with Internet access, which can run $10 to $20 monthly.

So why is Paolo giving it away?

He said his company, which has four full-time employees (including himself) and three part-timers, received a low interest $30,000 loan from the Rhode Island Department of Economic Development's Small Business Loan Fund last Fall. To return the favor, he felt his company should "do it's part to see that all Rhode Island businesses have access to the great resources of the Internet."

And Paolo is hoping his goodwill will benefit his own company as well. He stands to bring in more paying customers if businesses decide they want more than just Internet e-mail.

He's not sure how much the promotion will cost but him he hopes it will more than pay for itself by selling companies on using the Internet as a business tool.

"We want to give them the opportunity to test the Internet and get their feet wet," he said. "From there, we're banking on businesses finding out how easy the Internet is to use and how great a resource it is."

Log on America competes with a handful of local Internet providers and against a dozen or so national companies and online services, all of which are jockeying for a share of the burgeoning Internet access market.

These companies lease expensive, high-speed connections to the Internet and in turn, allow customers to use that connection for a monthly fee as little as $10.

Log on America has been online since 1992, when it began as a small two- line computer bulletin board in Warwick specializing in classified advertising. That venture "didn't work," Paolo said.

In October of 1993, Paolo's board formed an alliance with WJAR Channel 10 and began offering news, weather and sports updates from the television station. It expanded its offerings to include Internet access when it moved its operations to it's present location in downtown Providence in August, 1994.

Since then, Paolo has rallied financial support from nine other Rhode Island business people - "bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and people who own jewelry companies" - who together have invested about $170,000, he said.

Today, Log on America has 20 in-state phone lines and 20 out-of-state lines to serve some 2,000 subscribers, including businesses, government agencies and computer hobbyists, Paolo said.

E-mail accounts are also available for free to Rhode Island residents through the state-sponsored Ocean State Free-Net, but there are some drawbacks for businesses, Paolo said. The Free-Net's lines are often busy, making it difficult to get through.

And users have no choice what their e-mail address will be on the Free- Net. Addresses are assigned and can be hard to remember. They begin with two letters followed by three numbers - like "zx832."

Paolo will address both shortcomings, he said. Log on America will add more lines if the promotion causes busy signals. And he allows users to choose the first part of their e-mail address so they can be descriptive and easy to remember, such as "jewelry-maker."

Paolo said he's hoping to interest Rhode Island businesses in other Internet services his company offers, which he said can be valuable tools. Among them are "Web pages," a popular and inexpensive way to advertise on the Internet.

Commercial Web pages are interactive, graphical computer advertisements, which can be seen by anyone who can access part of the Internet known as the World Wide Web.

A Web page can include company information, pictures, descriptions of products, and even forms that allow users to place orders online. Paolo said a typical business Web page costs about $200 to set up and $50 per month for maintenance.

But having a Web page is no guarantee that anyone will see it. While a number of organizations have attempted to categorize Web pages on the Internet, there is no one central authority that catalogs Web pages like telephone companies do with phone directories.

(A few book publishers do compile their own Internet "yellow pages," but they are incomplete and quickly out-dated because of the Internet's rapid growth.)

And while the Internet is the latest rage among home computer users and businesses alike, it's still unclear what effect it will have on sales and profits.

"The Internet has yet to prove itself commercially viable," said Michael Walsh, who heads a Falls Church, Va., consulting firm, as quoted recently in an article in Investor's Business Daily.

But the Internet, which was formed for research purposes in the 1970s and '80s, has only recently been used for commerce. Many experts predict huge profits in some Internet-related ventures.

And there are some early success stories. Most of them, the article says, are small Internet access providers - such as Log On America.

There are restrictions to the free e-mail offer. Businesses can connect to the Log on America computer for e-mail only during business hours, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and are limited to 20 minutes connect time daily. (That should be plenty of time to send and receive e-mail, Paolo said.) And each business is allowed just one free e-mail account.

Only the most basic computer system is needed - a modem and simple communications software - to connect to the Log On America system to send and retrieve e-mail.

Businesses can set up their free e-mail account by sending a business card to Paolo at Log On America, 3 Regency Plaza, Providence, RI 02903. Call the company at 453-6100 for more information.

Regional and national companies offering Internet and e-mail service to the Rhode Island-Southeast Massachusetts market.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.