It seems like the Dark Ages now, thinking back 20 years ago before the Internet was readily available in Modesto. But getting online used to require costly long-distance phone calls to the Bay Area, and very few people knew how to make it work.
Then in 1994, American InfoMetrics became Modesto’s first Internet service provider, giving residents an onramp to the information superhighway.
Now, 19 years later, American InfoMetrics is pulling the plug, bidding goodbye to its final 100 or so customers. It’s closing down this week.
“We did actually feel like the pioneers, with arrows sticking out of our backs,” said Andrew Goreff, who started AI with his wife, Barbara.
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He remembers how Modesto’s early Internet users had been paying phone bills of up to $400 a month just to get connected, and even emails were difficult to get before his company launched. The Web was so new that most people couldn’t grasp what Goreff was talking about.
“Banks didn’t understand us. They thought the Internet was a wacky idea and wouldn’t give us a loan,” said Goreff, 60, who was a computer systems analyst for the city of Modesto during the early ’90s.
Goreff began helping a few early adopters get email through a California State University, Stanislaus, connection in 1991, including Modesto city planner George Osner.
“Andrew has always been cutting-edge. He was really enthusiastic and got a lot of people interested in it,” Osner realled. “But email was really new and not available generally back then unless you were affiliated with an academic institution.”
That changed when AI opened in downtown Modesto.
“I really credit them with bringing the Internet as a common culture item to Modesto,” Osner said.
Getting a high-tech company going in a low-tech community wasn’t easy.
“The first thing we did was to open up a classroom in our office where we conducted classes about what email was and how to use the Internet,” said Goreff, who now teaches technology classes at Modesto Junior College.
Within months, AI began helping local businesses and nonprofit organizations launch websites.
By 1995, several other companies began offering Web connections in Stanislaus County. Five years later, Modesto residents had hundreds of so-called Internet service providers to choose from.
But AI remained a local leader. Goreff said that between 1999 and 2001, his company had about nine employees and served around 1,500 customers – including many Modesto businesses.
The dial-up connections AI provided would seem impossibly slow by today’s standards, but Goreff said that “they were great before there was so much multimedia content online.”
Back then photos could take many minutes to download, and streaming video was unheard of.
“Then DSLs came along, and that changed everything,” Goreff said. Digital subscriber lines provided significantly faster broadband access to the Web, and Internet users craved the download speeds they enabled.
But big telephone companies, Goreff said, made it too expensive for small Internet companies like his to own their own DSL lines. Then cable TV companies began offering broadband connections through cable lines.
“The writing was on the wall,” Goreff said. “We all really got addicted to the speed.”
About 2004, he said, most customers started switching away from the dial-up connections offered by small ISPs to the high-speed service offered by telecommunication giants.
AI’s customer base dwindled. It closed its downtown Modesto office in 2008, and the Goreffs ran what remained of their firm from home.
A dedicated group of subscribers has continued paying for the company’s email-only service, primarily so they could retain their @ainet.com addresses. About 100 of those email customers (including Osner) remained this month when the company announced it was closing.
“Several current issues are making it necessary to expedite this process,” Barbara Goreff wrote in a notice to AI’s customers. “Google has purchased the Postini e-mail filtering service (that AI relies on). The service has been terrific and unmatched at keeping the flood of spam and viruses at bay. They are no longer providing service to providers our size.”
Barbara Goreff also explained how AI’s “upstream hosting company, after 12 years, will not negotiate a lower minimum monthly fee.”
The Goreffs are helping their customers transition to alternative services.
Only a couple of local Internet service providers remain.
Salida’s Fire2Wire offers fixed-point wireless broadband connections to Stanislaus and five other San Joaquin Valley counties. That service, which began in 1998, serves mostly rural customers who live too far from cities to access DSL or cable TV connections.
“We’ve had to stay up with cutting-edge technologies to stay healthy as a business,” said William Moreno, Fire2Wire’s vice president of sales. He said AI “never made that pivot to broadband.” Because his company did, it now has about 25,000 Internet customers.
Andrew Goreff acknowledged “Fire2Wire’s timing was very good” as it focused on providing wireless connections to rural locations.
Another remaining local ISP is called Big Valley in Ceres, which has been offering dial-up connections since 1999.