Internet is a basic commodity for most of U.S. consumers, but some remote Alaskan towns like Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea are just getting connected to the digital world. Other rural towns in Alaska have surprisingly been connected nearly as long as their peers in the Lower 48.
The internet came to Homer in 1995, but it wasn’t a large internet provider that broke into the rural Alaskan market, it was a 20-year-old college student that saw the business opportunity.
Dave Barker moved out of his parents’ home in 2000, but his mother Cindy still sees remnants of him all around the house. She has pictures of him, some of his old artwork and a box of his old stuff. But there are also some more unusual reminders of her son. Like cables running outside the house.
“See, like all these?” she asked laughing. “They kept getting bigger and bigger. I think the last one was the black one.”
She points to an inch-thick cable and then opens up a phone box with a bunch of brightly colored wires inside.
“Look at all that stuff," she said. "I think those are all just phone lines.”
This house was the headquarters of XYZ, the internet provider company responsible for introducing most of Homer to the web. Barker started the company in his parents’ basement. But he said it wasn’t for the glory of bringing the internet to his home town.
“Honestly, it was a matter of me being a bit lost in my college pursuits and feeling like two years now and I still don't know what I've got to pursue,” he said.
Barker was attending the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. But after finishing his sophomore year, he spent the summer at home and went fishing with his Dad.
“We're talking about the internet and leave it to him as an entrepreneur, being a fisherman, if you want to make something happen you just go do it and suggested to me that maybe I could bring the internet to Homer, which seemed pretty fantastical in my mind,” he said.
It was 1995 and Homer didn’t have an internet service provider. So Barker decided to quit college and start a company here. He did the research, picked people’s brains and even traveled to Anchorage to see if the internet providers there had plans to come to Homer. They didn’t.
Barker then transformed his parent’s basement to an internet hub. He drilled holes in the wall to connect phone lines and built racks to hold his hardware and modems. His clients would dial up his system.
“The modem answers, connects to my system, my system is connected to this data line going directly to Anchorage,” Barker said. “Anchorage knows how to route to Seattle and the rest of the world and you're on the internet.”
All of a sudden, Barker, a 20-year-old college dropout, was the CEO of his own internet company, but his office wasn’t so glamorous. At first, he worked in a storage space underneath the stairs with four foot-high ceilings.
It took him months to get ready to launch, but once he announced he was ready for business, Barker’s first competitors came on the scene. Internet Alaska and PTI said they were going to start offering services to Homer residents.
“So of course my heart just drops because I'm thinking oh my gosh, I did all this prep,” he said. “I am ready to go. Now folks are just going to see it as a little extra checkbox on their phone bill like, 'Sure, add internet to that.' So it was very scary. I remember being very nervous.”
But he had something that other companies didn’t: customer service. Wayne Aderhold is a long-time Homer resident who registered an XYZ account with Barker back in the 90’s.
“I never heard anybody talk about it taking long to hear back from Dave. If you didn't get him, if he didn't just answer the phone when you dialed him, you'd hear back from him shortly,” he said. “So I don't know if the guy slept.”
Barker agrees with Aderhold and thinks his personal touch helped the company grow. But he knew lot of people were confused about the internet. So he hosted panels on it, met with the Homer Chamber of Commerce and even wrote a column for the Homer News called “Online.”
"Get hints to enjoy the net such as where to do online shopping, get David Letterman’s top ten lists, access, federal documents, visit museum’s exhibits," Barker's mother read from the first installment.
By 1999, most people who had internet in Homer had an XYZ account. But the market was changing again. Cable companies were providing internet access, and Barker said he was ready for something different. So that year he sold the company to Internet Alaska.
“I was still in my parents basement and I needed to get out and you know go start my own lifestyle.”
Barker moved to Atlanta, got married and had kids. He’s no longer in the tech business. He said he’s a family man and helps out at his kids’ school. The only costumer service calls he gets now are from his parents. After all, it's partially his fault they have internet in the first place.