They say you'll pay

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You've finally decided to buy that new PC for your home. Prices are low, modem speeds are up and life is looking pretty OK.

Breathe deep, read on. Whether you think the Internet is a vast wasteland or the mother lode of information, graphics, games and commerce, you should check out what the bait is laced with before you go and get hooked.

According to Alan Wood, senior vice president of engineering and operations at Apex Global Information Systems (AGIS), the idea that the Internet is a tool for the people is partly a misconception. Serving in one of the top command posts at AGIS in Dearborn, Wood has seen the telecommunications industry shakeout from the upper floors.

Internet and telecommunications companies are scrambling to find consumers who will pay top dollar -- likely between $50 and $75 every month -- for a combined communications service fee. Separate bills may be collector's items someday, when the combined fee ultimately includes telephone, e-mail, Internet, television, cable, fax and other electronic transmissions now carried through a variety of networks.

Telecommunications companies "don't really want dial-up users over-subscribing their phone switches and killing the public switch telephone networks," Wood says, adding that one phone company, U.S. West, wants to charge for every time you use its lines to connect to the Internet, a price that would go above and beyond what you pay your ISP.

But some ISPs will take a different approach. Wood estimates that there are already several new start-up ISPs that are entirely financed by sponsorship advertising, which makes them free for users. "As long as you maintain their advertising window on the screen, you can connect for free."

No more $19.95 a month? Goodbye AOL once and for all? Not likely -- you'll still have to pay somewhere, and you'll probably pay more in the end. Wood predicts that the evolution will continue in the same way television evolved: It was first paid for by sponsors. Then came cable, then came premium channels. Production costs still have to be covered somewhere, and it will ultimately come from you, the end user.

"I think most people don't understand that," Wood says.

It seems that ISPs will ultimately have to change how they're doing business to survive. For example, ISPs might become an advertising arm for large corporations such as Ford, Procter & Gamble, General Motors -- those with most money will succeed first and best.

Over the next 10 years, we'll also see television-quality real-time video over the Internet, Wood predicts. That will lead to a combination of video conferencing, faxing and interactive gaming.

"We will actually see the Jetsons video telephone that we've been imagining since we were kids," he enthuses.

For the average consumer, it's all entertainment. And with the expected growth of electronic commerce, simple things such as banking, communication with public utilities, or other services will proliferate.

"All communications that currently go over the public switch telephone network will be doing business there."

Wood also estimates the Internet will play a much larger role in our political structure, citing as an example the Starr Report, a document which was distributed within minutes to millions of people.

"Voters have the ability to interact with one another and get information; it's entirely possible to see online voting, or at least polling, in the future," he predicts.

If you had to guess where the Internet is headed, a good bet would be on one combined communications system, designed for cost-effective business use, which would also be one hell of an entertainment system.

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