Business
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2010: Fifteen Years of Local Internet Service

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Over the summer of 1995, I was working on a project with Jerusalem Perspective (JP) magazine to develop an interactive CD that would showcase their magazine. I first heard about the “World Wide Web” that summer, but living in technology-locked southeast Missouri, I couldn’t grasp the WWW concept and certainly didn’t know how to access this “Internet.” I had an account on CompuServe (and several other bulletin boards) but we all paid by the minute for the long distance phone access over a 9600 baud modem (9.6k).

In August, 1995, I had learned enough by reading (though I still hadn’t seen a web page myself) to know that JP would be better served “online” than on a CD. As I priced the ability to put up a web site, I found that registering a Domain Name was $250 per year, putting up a web site cost $100/month and I still wouldn’t be able to view it without paying by the minute since there was no available Internet access in our area.

Over Labor Day weekend, Toni and I traveled to Kansas City to visit a friend and speak with a technology company who had transformed their bulletin board to an Internet service. I learned a lot that day about how companies were putting their information online and about IP addresses, which is how the network knows who you are when connected. But I still didn’t get to experience a web page.

That night after the meeting, we went to see a new movie, “The Net.” The movie fabricated many things about the Internet, but I have to admit that I learned more about IP addresses, telnet sessions, in those two hours. And it was the first time I actually saw a web page, though still not personally.

On our drive home, every time we discussed the possibility of starting an Internet service, Toni would say, “You need to do this…I don’t understand it all but you need to do this.” Her wisdom and encouragement was a key to starting Poplar Bluff Internet.

During September and early October, I made all the arrangements to open an Internet company including securing Roger Hogg and my father, Jim Becker, as additional shareholders. We were set to open the last week of October.

Two weeks before we were ready to open, we found out that I wasn’t the only one with this idea of bringing Internet to Poplar Bluff. Both IMS and LDD announced they were bringing Internet service to Poplar Bluff.

The shareholders were discouraged. After all, how could there be enough people to support three Internet services. It was also about this time that I experienced the WWW for myself and clicked on my first web page. That was key for me and I instantly knew that an Internet business was a good idea even with competition.

A week before we opened, a young man from Qulin, Jerry Aldrich, who ran a popular local bulletin board, called and asked to have a meeting with me. Admittedly, I was taken a back at first, as Jerry’s idea of business casual is a pair of overalls.

Halfway through lunch at HRH Dumplins, Jerry informed me he had been researching all three startup services and offered his services and abilities to my company. Jerry proved to be a God-send. He handled designing the first semo.net web page and the two of us worked together to better understand the technology I had purchased.

Jerry also introduced me to James Neal, another bulletin board genius. James helped customize the “Trumpet software” needed to install on customer computers to connect to the Internet.

All three of us didn’t get much sleep during those first weeks as we raced to get everything working. I installed 8 phone lines & modems, one portmaster, one server, and an ISDN line back to St Louis (128k bandwidth) at our location in the attic closet above Today’s Computers on Maud Street.

Early semo.net Web Site

Early semo.net Web Site

Our first customer, if memory serves me, was Jim Dille. He paid cash so that we could frame his payment. But, like the Geiko commercial, someone pulled the bill out of my drawer and used it in the spring of 1996.

I was hoping to get 20 customers by the end of 1995 and 100 customers by that summer. But that wasn’t the case for the fledgling company. By January 1996 we had 100 customers and by the end of 1996, we hit 400 customers.

It was clear that this was going to be a full-time job for me and I needed to find people who could translate GEEK into common sense when helping customers. I hired Derek Jeffries, Eric Arnold and Matt Rhodes in January 1996.

A bit short-sighted, the original web site was pbmo.net and focused strictly on Poplar Bluff. We began getting calls from Doniphan asking to expand our service. It was then that I realized there was a fluke in the calling patterns between Southwestern Bell and Alltel.

Fairdealing was able to call Poplar Bluff as a local call and Doniphan was able to call Fairdealing locally. We installed a phone line at a home in Fairdealing and with call-forwarding, a local call from Doniphan to Fairdealing rang at our Poplar Bluff modems. People in Doniphan were able to connect through this “service exploit” with no per-minute long-distance charges.

It was soon after bringing on our first Doniphan customers that we re-branded our service to semo.net, Southeast Missouri’s Online Community in mid ’96.

And, yes, JerusalemPerspective.com had a home on the world wide web.

To Toni, Roger, Dad, Jerry, James, Derek, Eric and Matt…thank you for such wonderful help and support in that first year.

If I had to define one reason why Poplar Bluff Internet succeeded early on and continues to this day, it would be our employees. Though we’ve gone from a family of four to more than fifty and now back down to just over a dozen, it still rings true that this business is about service. I couldn’t be more proud of those around me who provide that service to our customers.

We still have many of those original 400 customers from fifteen years ago. On this day of “looking back and looking forward” I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support, your patience, your input and your patronage.

God bless you all.

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Written by Brian Becker

After graduating from Mizzou with Computer and Electrical Engineering degrees in 1985, Brian Becker spent a decade singing Christian Rock and being a labeled artist with Benson Music Group of Nashville. In 1995, he and several investors started the area's first Internet Service called PBMO.net and by 2000 the company was serviing Internet access in over 50 communities throughout Southeast Missouri as SEMO.net. In July 2014, Becker again made a major pivot and became Publisher of the SEMO TIMES: a weekly print and daily online news and entertainment source for the region.

  • geeky teacher

    Brian, I want to thank you! As one of the first customers from Piedmont, I have always been pleased with the service you have provided us. I have friends who have (or are currently) tried other ISPs in the area and have constant complaints about them. I refer them to you and sing high praises for semo.net. I’m not sure how many of them have switched, but know that several have and are quite pleased also. Keep up the good work, and thanks again.

  • Diane Mast

    I have only been a customer since early part of 2006. Moving here from Denver, Colorado then, I was at a loss as to where to go. Fortunately, the previous owner had used you and she referred your company. At that time, this area in Doniphan was wireless. The two guys who set up my service were wonderful and I have used you ever since. Since then, I now have access to DSL, what a wonderful upgrade. I appreciate everything your company does and have not had any trouble or problems. The only situation I had (because the user – me- is an ungeek) was that I had my e-mail on the web and not set it up through Outlook Express, oh yes, and one time I signed up for something on the internet and after that I was flooded with SPAM. However, with one call to your office, you set me up with Postini. Thank you ever so much for making this transition so easy for me.

  • Ruthie Carter

    I am one of the earlier pbmo.net people. I absolutely loved Jerry’s home page designs…especially the earliest ones that had the Christmas music on them along with the icicles across the top. Looking forward avidly to faster than dialup service for our little “backside of nowhere” area. Please say it’ll be soon *pleading*

  • Carolyn

    We’ve been members since 2005 and the service is great, although I whine about one thing or another once in a while, the tech support is very responsive. Like Ruthie above, we’re on the “backside of nowhere” and pleading for something faster than dialup. Hope your association with the Dept of Ag and the stimulus monies will bring something to other than the organized communities and not forget the folks in the woods!!

  • Keith Woodruff

    I remember those early days well. I was somewhere in that first one hundred customers. You introduced me to something that would become a huge part of my everyday life. From the time I get up in the morning until I go to bed at night I am connected to the www. I use it for information, pleasure, and work. It would be impossible to do what we do now at the church without internet services. So thanks Brian for that long ago Christmas gift that made such a huge difference in my life.

  • Kurt Zimmer

    I was a customer in the 90’s for several of the earlier years, and was recommended to you by Mike Gossett, who I think helped set up service in Van Buren back then. I recommended you to my parents, who are still customers. Needing faster service at home, and out of range for wireless or DSL, I am now a satellite customer but still use semo.net for my home page. Glad to see you are still around, and enjoyed the history lesson.

  • Dennie Sparkman

    Enjoyed the article.
    Continued success.
    Best Regards
    Dennie Sparkman
    Master Chief USN (ret.)