Independent Internet service providers, those scrappy dial-up companies that sprouted up in nearly every market during the mid-1990s, are still thriving even though Big Business now rules the Net.
"I have more customers now than I've ever had," said Guy Bass, president of CSRA Internet Services, a 2,000-subscriber provider based in Augusta.
While big-name competitors such as America Online, MSN and Mindspring have a staggering number of subscribers (AOL has 23 million), industry analysts say the country's 4,500 independent ISPs are collectively signing up more customers percentage-wise.
In fact, a report by New York-based Jupiter Communications projects independent ISPs will serve approximately 79 percent of U.S. households with Internet access.
New Jersey-based Internet analyst Gordon Cook, publisher of the online magazine The Cook Report, said local ISPs seem to be most popular with small-business owners, organizations and individuals seeking high-quality, high-service connections.
"Speaking personally, I would rather get my connectivity from a small-town ISP than from the Wal-Mart of the Internet," he said.
Augusta's ISPs, like most across the country, have had to change with the times. ISPs now make most of their revenue designing and playing host to Web sites since the $15-$20 unlimited Internet access plan has become the industry norm.
Regional ISPs nationwide are trying to stay competitive with new product offerings, such as wireless Internet services.
One local ISP, Internet Effects, a 900-subscriber service based in North Augusta, recently launched a traditional telephone-based messaging service that eventually will be expanded to forward messages to customers via e-mail, company co-founder Frank Easton said.
"We're trying to expand and become a complete communications company," Mr. Easton said. "We believe this is one step toward our ultimate goal."
So far, the service has netted Internet Effects about 30 new customers, many of whom aren't even online.
"I'm not real heavy into it now, but I probably will be," electrical contractor M.K. Daniels said.
Small providers can also stay competitive against big companies because traditional economies-of-scale - the law of business that makes a giant like Wal-Mart virtually unstoppable in the brick-and-mortar world - do not exist in cyberspace.
Federal regulations ensure both large and small providers pay similar charges to tap into telecommunications networks.
"The costs of doing business for established companies are even going down," Mr. Bass said. "The cost of equipment is going down, and the software is getting better, so there is less tech support involved."
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.