Clear, NBR services unveiled

It might feel like any other day to you but this morning two of the country's most significant Internet services go live.

This might feel like any other Friday to you, but it's a big morning for New Zealand's Internet, with two major developments--Clear Communications' offering in the consumer ISP market and a huge new Website from National Business Review--both debuting today.

Of the two, the Clear Net (http://www.clear.net.nz) project has been on the boil for longer--nearly two years, during which time plans have been considerably overhauled. What emerges is a service with a heavy emphasis on the ISP basics and a "soft launch" to allow the service to grow gradually.

Project manager Andy Lake happily describes Clear Net as being far from the "bleeding edge"--but in turn points to the country's first 24-hour, seven-day helpdesk (which has an overflow to Clear's main customer support lines if necessary) and 15 local POPs, each running the now-compulsory Ascend Max hubs for dial-in access.

On the road to delivery, Clear has balked on following up an internal licensing deal with Netscape in favour of a strategic alliance with Microsoft New Zealand. Back-end hardware has been supplied by Sun Microsystems agent Solnet.

Clear admits its pricing has been dictated by the market, rather than the $8m invested in the project, with direct-dial prices slightly more than Telecom Xtra during the day ($2.95/hr 7am-4pm), equal at $2.50/hr from 4-12pm and slightly less on the "graveyard" rate, at $2.25/hr. All 0800 access is $5.95/hr.

The company expects its selling points to be the performance of its twin international feeds from MCI (which will probably evolve into adoption of the MCI/BT Concert global IP network), the performance of Clear's own ATM backbone, and various customer goodies, including a high level of customisation for Clear Net's Webmasters designed pages.

The default browser with Clear Net's five-disk connection kit is Internet Explorer for the Mac or PC, with pre-packaged Macintosh connectivity, coming in the form of the highly-regarded Internet Set-up Monkey, licensed from Rockstar, the US-based vendor of FreePPP.

Microsoft New Zealand also plays a central role in the NBR online project (http://www.nbr.co.nz), which Microsoft New Zealand marketing manager Steve Jenkins describes as "our biggest contribution yet to an Internet project. The NBR Business Online Centre goes live today with 26 sites and 1500 principal pages and various subscriptions giving access to financial and market information, and major databases, including BayCorp credit ratings and the Companies Office.

Along with NBR's 12 "charter sponsors", the NBR launch also throws a spotlight on Clearfield Communications, the two-year-old company which developed and hosts the centre, and Voyager, which will provide a connectivity deal for NBR customers. Telecom is presently out of the loop, despite having had first look in on an NBR project during extensive discussions with the project's manager Graeme Colman last year.

Clearfield came into the picture in January, when Colman had a firmer vision of what the site should do, and discussed the possibilities with Clearfield principals Ken Westlake and Bob Geary.

"Our core business is to gather and sell information, much the same as yours is--and you don't make money by giving it away," says Colman, who admits that even at the beginning of this year, prospects for making an honest dollar on the Internet looked dim.

Colman and Clearfield both by then had a clear picture of what the site would be--an information resource targeted at NBR's existing readership with a strong emphasis on database publishing.

"It occured to me that we really needed something with which people could interact, and unless you used the power of the multimedium, you weren't doing yourself or your potential revenue streams justice. We very much stick to our knitting--anyone can use the centre, but it's aimed at decision-makers really; we want to empower them.

"I thought it would take until the end of June to sell those sponsorship proposals, but after a hectic series of meetings we got them all sold in three-and-a-half weeks. That told us there was an immense interest. Some of our charter sponsors at that point didn't even have a Website, some of the chief executives didn't know anything about the Internet, but they knew that they had to be there."

Seventeen other companies have since signed up as charter advertisers, allowing Colman to boast that the project will be in profit from day one. Although registration with the centre is free, other revenue streams will flow from subscriptions to informations services and commissions on third-party services available through the site.

"I'm a firm believer that you need channels and malls if the Internet is going to be useful to people, and that's what we're providing," says Colman. "Nobody in our centre has been forced to sign a contract--I can't force people to sign their name next to mine. I only want deals that provide a win for each party. So this is is a brand mall--and we do have a good grip on the market, in terms of continuing to keep it in front of the marketplace."

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