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Making the right connections.

At a time when it seemed ISPs were going the way of the dodo, Minneapolis-based VISI was doing just fine, and has now become the state’s largest business-to-business ISP. General Manager Bil MacLeslie claims that the company’s success had less to do with strategy and marketing than it did with good old-fashioned customer service. (You remember that kind–where someone actually answers the phone?) MacLeslie chats about evolution, the public spectrum, and being a geek.

How did get started, and why was that name chosen?

Vector Internet Services, Inc. (VISI) was started by a few friends in October of 1994 in response to the outrageous prices and poor customer service available at that time. This led to VISI’s credo, “Answer the phone, be helpful, friendly and knowledgeable.” Funny, that’s what we still do, and I think it’s the true reason for our success.

What got you personally interested in doing this work?

The history of my own online involvement is that from 1984 until 1994 I ran a computer BBS named Bad Sector. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the online community. The translation from a single user to a multi-user environment was just normal evolution.

Why do you feel there’s a need for, and what kinds of challenges do you see in trying to be successful in the ISP realm?

Some consumers want a choice of a better provider. Anyone who wants to rent the latest James Bond movie can get it at the convenience store or movie rental chain. The user who wants a better, wider selection needs to go to a specialty shop. We’re that specialty shop. In terms of challenges, I’d say one is competing against the incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC), with emphasis on “incumbent.” The ILEC has many powerful tools at their disposal to sway both regulatory and market pressure against the regional or local ISP.

What kind of challenges do you find in implementing DSL for customers?

The problem with DSL is the loop length limitations. The metropolitan calling area is huge, at one point nearly 100 miles across. The limitation of 15000 feet (or roughly 3 miles) just makes DSL not an option to the majority of communities that are in the local calling area. VISI is pursuing a wireless access solution that we hope will address the lack of availability of DSL for our customers.

How do you get coverage out of whatever flavor of 802.11 you deploy?

By sheer luck. Since, by its nature, the public spectrum is unregulated, it is subject to interference, lobbying, shadowing, and congestion. It may work great one day and not at all the next. Security, authentication problems, and encryption are just a few of the technical hurdles to be crossed. VISI is usually never first with a solution to a problem, but when we decide to provide a specific solution to our users, we feel confident that the choice is well made and will stand up to our users’ use and abuse. Like everyone else who is looking at a wireless offering, we’re trying to figure out what technologies will best serve our customers.

What was it like to go from being a stage and sound technician to being a ISP guru, and what do you like best about what you do now?

Natural evolution. Once a geek, always a geek. I twiddled knobs and controlled feedback. I still do. As far as what I’m doing now, what I like best is changing the nature of how transactions are done.

How do you feel about the current debate over taxes and online transactions?

The question of what tax zone you are in is absurd when you’re on the Internet. I hope that someday geography will not matter, just what you’re buying and from whom, not where it’s shipped. A national sales tax is necessary, I think.

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