By now, most people have at least heard the word Internet. Few can define it or pretend to understand it, but lots of them use it. While it's difficult to pin-point how many people use the Internet, it's estimated 34 million people world-wide now cyber surf, and this figure is expanding at a rate of 15 per cent a month, according to the non-profit group Internet Society. This week in Hull Quebec, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission chair Keith Spicer began month-long hearings on what has become known as the information highway. Spicer says the hearings come at a critical time in the history of communications. "Within a very short period of time, we've witnessed the virtual explosion of information technologies that will someday no doubt reshape our lives in ways that even the richest and wisest entrepreneurs haven't begun to dream of," he is quoted as saying during the hearings. Readers unclear on some terms may wish to refer to the accompanying glossary of terms before continuing or while reading. A Brief History According to Wired Magazine, the 25th anniversary of the Internet's creation, then called Arpanet, was celebrated last September. The idea of linking computers together to share computing resources was the brainchild of Bob Taylor, the director of the computer research program at the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1966. Nineteen scientists from MIT, UCLA, the United Kingdom, and research groups in the U.S., worked on the original project. One of those involved was Doug Engelbart, the creator of the computer mouse. Computer giant International Business Machines declined to submit a proposal to build a computer to handle the communications, claiming the network could never be built. It was, and part of it now calls Whistler home. The Internet in Whistler While the Internet creators were celebrating last September, local Internet providers Pat Richard and Frank Franchini were working on the creation of Whistler Networks, the first locally-based service provider. Their office is located in Function Junction at the south end of the Whistler Valley. Until it opened in November, local users had to use servers in Vancouver. For most, this involved long distance telephone charges and was considerably more expensive than it is now. Whistler Networks offers 50 hours of Internet time for $100 plus a $30 set-up fee, which includes the programs necessary to use the Internet. Richard, 22, has been using the Internet for 10 years. The Nova Scotia native briefly pursued a university education before exploring the workforce. He provides the technical know-how necessary to operate the business. Franchini, 29, uses his marketing and business savvy to increase the number of users and promote the Internet's use by individuals and businesses in Whistler. Setting up Whistler Networks involved a lot more than buying a bunch of technical equipment and plugging it in, as Richard's phone bill can attest. After working as a programmer for such companies as Microsoft Corporation and Northern Telecom, Richard decided to move back to Whistler last May. He was a ski visitor for five seasons and lived here full-time for two seasons while working as a ski technician at Blackcomb. His original plan was to work as a computer programmer in Whistler, but in order to do so he needed to have an Internet site that avoided the expense of long distance charges. He began exploring the possibilities for getting a locally-based Internet address. One of his stops was at Cyberstore in Vancouver, a large B.C.-based Internet service provider. Richard worked out an agreement with Cyberstore and the Whistler Telephone Company which allows him a relatively inexpensive Internet access from Whistler to Vancouver. He began to put together the appropriate hardware and software, creating a lot of what he needed from scratch. By August, he had a server running in Whistler. Franchini is a 10-year Whistler veteran. He jokes that he is a high-school dropout, but his resume includes college courses in computers, business administration and geology. He once worked as a bartender for The Keg restaurant, where he borrowed $3,000 from the building maintenance man to buy his first real computer. He still uses the same monitor and computer casing with Whistler Networks, but the insides of the computer have been upgraded over the years. Franchini also worked for the Delta Hotel in night audit, and this led to him starting a multimedia business with touch-screen computers for the hotel. This company, based in Vancouver, is still operating with a business partner who lives in Vancouver. While investigating the possibility of starting a business to provide Internet access in Whistler, Franchini's path also led him to Cyberstore. The company suggested Franchini get in touch with Richard since they were both trying to achieve similar goals. "I spent four days trying to get a hold of Pat in order to get an e-mail address," Franchini says. The two finally met in October. After comparing notes and ideas, they decided to work together. "We were both planning to do it. No matter what," Franchini says. Whistler Networks opened its office Nov. 23, but by this time they had already sold or given away some accounts. Their first account was bought by Dee Dee Gregory of Whistler. "When Frank decided to start selling accounts, I kinda freaked," Richard says. A reformed hacker, Richard's background in computers and software gave him the skills necessary to build the system himself. Using the Internet, Richard gathered bits and pieces of programming from many educational institutions and other sources to write the program which enables Whistler Networks to drive on the information highway. "Basically, Pat built the operating system himself. In the first month, his phone bill was $2,000. We could have bought a system for that, but he totally understands this system. He can now fix, modify and upgrade our system," Franchini says. Sitting in their office, the sounds of computers and people accessing the equipment can be heard. To Richard and Franchini, it is the sound of money. The office is sparsely decorated with office furniture, electronic gizmos and magazines such as PC Magazine, Wired, Byte, Internet World and Dr. Dobbs. They have plans to be much bigger. "The week before Frank went into Cyberstore's offices on West Broadway it was run out of a basement in the owner's house," Richard says. Franchini didn't know that. His eyes lit up. "I was actually expecting a closet full of modems, not a huge office on Broadway," Franchini says. Is there money involved in providing the Internet? Many people, including Richard and Franchini, believe there is. Few people agree on how it will be made. "The big money hasn't been made yet," Richard says. "The big money is in Web pages," Franchini says. On the busiest day so far, which was in mid-February, there were more than 6,400 connections made to the Whistler Networks World Wide Web pages. On average, about 4,000 per day. "Making serious money — between $20-million and $50-million — is in providing communication lines and information. That's why you see a lot of mergers between telecommunications companies right now. Or there's money in writing the software everyone wants to use to access the Internet," Richard says. This lack of agreement is a major reason for the CRTC hearings regarding the information highway. Some see the hearings as a battleground for the war between telephone and cable companies over who should be allowed to distribute TV programs and multi-media services. Franchini says phone lines aren't the best way to transmit the information between computers. However, the fact they exist and go into most homes and businesses makes them the lines of choice right now. One of the frustrating things about phone lines is the lack of control servers such as Whistler Networks have over them. For example, most houses don't have fibre-optic lines which can handle large amounts of information all at once. These are installed mostly for businesses and between communities, according to Franchini. "Coaxial cable is quite good, too. You may see the Internet being distributed through the television," Franchini says. Some service providers may install their own lines, but this would be at a high cost. Users in Whistler As of this week, Whistler Networks has about 120 active users. These are both individuals and businesses. Some use the Internet's e-mail component to keep in touch with family and friends outside of Whistler, or even Canada. Communicating with clients or distributing product information is also possible. Scott Wurtele owns Data Boat Plans International Ltd., the world's largest source of boat plans, and runs it from his Whistler home. With plans from 91 boat designers and naval architects, Wurtele's company offers everything from dinghies and canoes to sea-faring yachts. He uses the Internet to keep in touch with customers and designers. For him, using Whistler Networks has meant a reduction in operating costs. He was a Compuserve subscriber for two years before Whistler Networks started up. It means spending $2 per hour instead of $30 an hour, which is how much long distance phone calls would be even with a discount plan, according to Wurtele. Another bonus for Wurtele is not having to worry about what time it is in other countries. "Time zones don't matter on the Internet. The information will be there when they wake up," he says. Essentially, Wurtele can have his entire catalog on the Internet for people to access using the World Wide Web. The advantages of this over a fax machine, for example, are greater speed, lower cost, and being able to use colour. His wife Wendy operates On-Line Design, a graphic design business, out of their house as well. She can upgrade computer programs, get information on new techniques, receive and deliver artwork and finished projects, and much more with the Internet. In addition to the professional uses the Wurtele's have found for the Internet, they use it to communicate with friends and family in Ontario. Their daughter Kristeen, 14, uses the Internet as a source for school projects. Wendy says she looks up medical information, gets airline ticket prices and makes reservations on the Internet. Another Whistler-based company which operates internationally with help from the Internet is Quantum Technology Corporation in Function Junction. Quantum specializes in the manufacture of scientific instruments and specializes in extremely low-temperature research equipment. "About 80 per cent of our business is the European market," says Andy Swingler. He designs, builds and services equipment for Quantum. When they used to pay long distance charges to use phone lines to Vancouver, their Internet use was minimal. Now, he says, they use it a lot more and in more ways. As well as corresponding with customers, Swingler can use the Internet while travelling in other countries to keep in touch with the company, ask questions and receive technical support. Again, costs are kept a lot lower because long distance charges don't apply. Swingler says Quantum is planning to put its next catalog on the Internet to keep people around the world informed of the company's products. Having a local service provider is a real bonus, he says. He has known Richard since they were teens in Nova Scotia and is getting to know Franchini well, too. "I talk to them daily," Swingler says. "They're always really helpful and I'm happy they're in Whistler." So are Richard and Franchini. For them, this is only the beginning of the Internet in Whistler. What happens after the CRTC hearings is anybody's guess. "It should be an interesting industry over the next one or two years," Franchini says.