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Republicans to offer subscription-based ISP

The Republican National Committee will announce a deal with Internet service provider Big Planet to offer online services to its members.

Joining a growing number of organizations using "affinity" marketing to hawk Internet access, the Republican National Committee (RNC) tomorrow will announce a deal with Internet service provider Big Planet to offer online services to its members.

According to a Big Planet representative, the service--dubbed GOPnet.com--will charge subscribers up to $19.95 a month for unlimited Internet access. An undisclosed portion of those fees will go to the RNC.

According to the RNC, subscribers will be offered a range of features for staying up-to-date on Republican politics, including a master calendar of GOP events, legislative alerts, political news, weather reports, stock quotes, chat rooms, and message boards. There will also be a direct link from GOPnet.com to each user's state GOP site. In addition, the site is equipped with adult-content filtering.

Larry Purpuro, deputy chief of staff for the Republican committee heading up the organization's "e-GOP" online efforts, said the site could generate revenues through advertising and e-commerce as well as subscriptions. "We are Republicans," he said. "If we are able to make a profit, we believe it will be because we provide a useful service."

The deal comes as Internet service providers, including Big Planet, are turning to affinity groups as an efficient way to market their services. Affinity marketing targets people who share the same interests, from common sports teams to favorite rock bands or activities.

The RNC's deal also comes as political organizations are experimenting with new ways to reach constituents online.

The Catholic Church and the AFL-CIO are among dozens of organizations that have recently partnered with ISPs to offer their members targeted services and to create new revenue streams for themselves.

The Democratic National Committee also is considering new online initiatives. According to a representative, the organization is working on its e-party initiative in cooperation with Wade Rendlett, a vice president at San Francisco-based e-commerce company Red Gorilla, although no timeline has been announced for new services.

So far, the arrangements appear to be a win-win for both the groups and the ISPs. Big Planet, for example, counts 60 affinity groups among its clients, according to Travis Jacobsen, a company spokesman.

"We're extremely pleased with the deal," he said. "This is a big step forward for Big Planet...It really validates us as a service provider."

Big Planet could see a big upside if the RNC succeeds in signing up even a portion of its 8 million-member base.

Regulatory uncertainty
It's unclear how far politicians and political organizations will be allowed to go in exploiting the Internet pending new rules covering fund-raising and other political activities on the Web.

In June, the Federal Election Commission updated its federal contribution matching rules to include credit card donations made via the Net. And in another opinion regarding the Secretary of State for Minnesota's Web site, the FEC concluded that nonpartisan Web sites that link to candidate sites do not have to report expenditures.

Last month, meanwhile, FEC Commissioner David Mason won approval to launch a public inquiry into how the Net is changing the political process and whether campaign rules should be amended to deal with the medium. The inquiry could lead to an official rule-making procedure.