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May 12, 1997|GREG MILLER

ISPeeved: Anyone who's spent much time on the Internet knows that tempers flare quickly on the electronic stage. But just as often, there are skirmishes going on behind the scenes.

Uunet Technologies Inc. touched off a tempest last week after the giant Internet service provider notified a dozen smaller providers that their days of free access to the Virginia-based company's network were ending.

The smaller ISPs howled that the move is an affront to the Net's egalitarian roots, and they even threatened lawsuits and boycotts. Among the most vocal critics was David Holub, chief executive of Whole Earth Networks, a San Francisco-based ISP with about 20,000 subscribers.

"When we let a handful of companies grab the biggest chunks of the Internet and run away with them forever, we limit our choices," Holub said. "I don't think this is the kind of Internet people want."

The dispute centers on a long-standing practice known as "peering," in which many ISPs handle one another's traffic for free.

"A few years ago when the Internet started offering commercial service, we were all roughly the same size, and we decided we wouldn't charge each other," said John Sidgmore, chief executive of Uunet. But now a handful of giant companies, including Uunet, handle the bulk of the traffic over nationwide networks they spent millions of dollars to build. With competition increasingly intense, the giants are no longer so charitable to smaller companies such as Whole Earth, which can't offer much in return.

"Thousands of these teeny-tiny guys have come into the marketplace," Sidgmore said. "They have two routers in the basement and want to peer with us."

To start cutting back, Uunet sent letters warning a dozen ISPs, including Whole Earth, that soon they would be charged several thousand dollars a month for access.

Needless to say, those missives didn't please their recipients, who complain that the proposed fees may force them to raise prices for subscribers.

"To me, this is a very big problem," Holub wrote in an e-mail to Silicon Valley journalists. "Perhaps one even worth losing your job over."

In fact, that's exactly what happened. Holub was fired by the majority shareholders of Whole Earth, apparently because he was bringing too much heat on the company even while the owners were working to reach a new agreement with Uunet.

The episode shows that even on the Net, the realities of business are hard to escape. Sidgmore said Uunet has gone on to make new deals with 10 of the 12 companies, including Whole Earth, after the company fired Holub.

"A lot of these guys have tried to make this a political and religious argument," Sidgmore said. "It's really just about money."

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