Going Faster

One of the tougher jobs in high tech is making a transition from a dying technology to a thriving one. Such is the task of Garry Betty, CEO of one of the nation's oldest Internet service providers. Without benefit of a built-in wire to people's homes (an advantage of the telcos and cable companies), he has to move his base from dial-up service to broadband. (Currently only 1.7 million of his customers are high-speed; he has 2.1 million dial-up customers as well as 1.4 million low-price dial-up customers from the former People PC company.) Betty is looking forward to voice-over-Internet schemes, mobile phones (like an investment with Helio, a youth-oriented start-up begun by EarthLink's founder, Sky Dayton) and providing Wi-Fi to municipalities like Anaheim, Calif., and Philadelphia. Betty, 49, joined EarthLink in 1996, after leaving a job at Digital Communications Associates (where he was the youngest CEO on the New York Stock Exchange). He talked to us by landline about EarthLink's challenges.

BETTY: I don't think it's ever going to die. There's a segment of the population who lives in areas that are just very difficult [for providers] to justify building a broadband infrastructure. Some 10 to 20 million U.S. households will probably use dial-up as a primary means to access the Internet for a long, long, long time.

We're taking the bull by the horns to start building meshed [interconnected] Wi-Fi networks in municipalities. We have aspirations of being able to address some 20 million-plus households using this technology over the next several years.

Your competitors say that muni Wi-Fi uses tax money to compete with them. The government has nothing to do with it. It's our dollars. It's our risk money. The only person that gets hurt if we can't sell any services over that pipe is us. If we can get 15 percent penetration in a city, we can basically break even.

You bet. And one of the services that we would like to take to trial in Q4 is a Wi-Fi-only phone. If you want to give one to your kids, maybe for five or 10 bucks a month, you could have unlimited calling. Should broadband providers have to offer equal access to all Internet services?

We believe that Net neutrality should be an important part of any telecom system. We think that there's a risk in having a duopoly control such an important part of the economy. Although [the telcos] say good words, I can tell you from experience that if they had the opportunity, they would be charging eBay and Amazon and Google and everybody else a toll for every transaction that took place on the Net.

Nobody wants us [ laughs ]. I think that the concept of an ISP [without infrastructure] isn't a business most people understand. As we make our transition from a traditional dial-up provider to a total communications provider, people will start looking at us a little bit differently. But the good news is, we have the resources and the opportunity to make that transition without interventions from third parties. How do you assess AOL's attempt to make that transition?

They should've done some of what they're doing four or five years ago, and they aren't quite as far along in their transition as we are. I hope that they're successful. Consumers really do like choice.

I'd be very unhappy to do it. We are even opposed to the concept of capturing user-related usage. We don't keep usage data by customer.

Oh, yeah, but we wouldn't do it. If they give us a subpoena we work with them, and have worked with them on things like catching pedophiles and things related to national security.

I joined Sky when the company was only a year and a half old. He knew that we'd have to raise a boatload more money than people were willing to give to a 23-year-old kid without a college education. I focused on things that I knew I alone could do--raising money, fixing the infrastructure. Sky focused on external issues like our public relations, and on the product. Those things worked very well. You and the founder have to leverage your collective strengths to make something that's even stronger.