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Making 56 kbps two-way

Upstart national ISP Web America Networks wants to make sure users of 56-kbps modems get the same performance from their access provider.

Frustrated by their access providers' failure to support the latest modem baud rate, users ask: What use are 56 kbps?

A relatively new kid on the block, Dallas-based national Internet service provider Web America Networks aims to make sure that users of 56-kbps modems get the same performance from their connection. While big players such as America Online (AOL), CompuServe (CSRV) and Prodigy have moved slowly on offering 56-kbps access to their customers, Web America today announced that it is now providing national dialup service for customers who want to connect with 56-kps modems from U.S. Robotics (USRX).

The 56-kbps access is an essential part of Web America's "charter to make the Internet as reliable as phones," said Philip Midkiff, president of Web America, which is owned by Dallas long distance company VarTac.

"Our architecture is more similar to telephones than what AOL has done," Midkiff said. "That means redundant fiber-optic links, higher-speed modems and higher-quality routers," he said. He added that the ISP also is building in the ability to pay for Internet access on telephone bills.

The company also is aiming its service at the mainstream. "We want to build a product that doesn't attract the propeller heads who are going to stay on for a hundred hours a month," he said. "We're not trying to attract that kind of crowd."

Right now Web America offers local dialup service in 9,569 different telephone exchange numbers in all 48 continental states, but Midkiff refused to say how many customers the company has.

Customers are charged $9.95 for 30 hours a month or $5.95 a month plus $2.95 per hour for access. But users will have to cough up an extra $9.95 per month to get on the Net at the 56-kbps rate, Midkiff said.

Whether or not they end up using it, Midkiff said that most of its customers want that speedy access.

"A good 80 percent of the people we're attracting want the 56-kbps option," he said. "It certainly is an investment."