A computer-wise Arkansan repulsed by obscene material available on the Internet has started a company that blocks access to such matter.
Neil Willis, a 26-year-old Air Force trained technician, founded Alphanet Internet Communications Inc. in 1995 as a web site design company. But in December, Alphanet began providing protected access to the Internet and it already has gotten business from churches, Christian schools, Arkansas' Baptist hospital system, and the largest bank in the state. Twenty percent of its business is from pastors and churches.
Last year, Willis and a friend were browsing the Internet and "we stumbled upon some pornography without even looking for it," he says.
"We were looking for something else," he says. "We didn't know."
Willis was designing home pages in his spare time. His full-time job was as an information services manager for a large insurance firm. But Willis had been praying for several weeks that the Lord would direct him to the work He wanted him to do.
"I went to my Source," says Willis, who named the company Alphanet because God is first in the business. "I said, 'Lord, You know my talents, what I'm able to do and what I'm not able to do. Just open up the door.'"
Willis and his friend, David Lukas, went to the founding partners for Alphanet and told them there was a tremendous demand for a responsible Internet access company. More and more kids were getting on the Internet, Willis said, and they could easily locate the same material he had found. Additionally, Willis knew there was other destructive information on the Internet that could be just as harmful to youngsters.
So Willis surveyed parents and asked if they would sign up with an Internet provider that would block access to information damaging to families and businesses.
"We got an overwhelming response," says Willis, a good-natured entrepreneur with a neatly trimmed black beard. "Almost a 100 percent response."
Much like a firewall in an automobile, Alphanet prevents pornography, violence, profanity, information on the use of illegal drugs, and other inappropriate material on the Internet from ever reaching a customer's computer.
Alphanet owns the rights in Arkansas to a filtering device that is located on a "proxy server" that screens the material.
In late June, Alphanet began installing more than 3,300 fiber-optic lines in Texas and now offers its service in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Willis expects to expand to Atlanta by the end of August and the entire state of Georgia by the end of the year.
Alphanet expects to have service available in Florida, North and South Carolina, and parts of Missouri by the end of the year, Willis says.
To fund the growth, Willis is working with a Little Rock law firm to prepare a private securities offering for Alphanet to raise $500,000. Much of that money will be used for marketing and advertising, Willis says.
Alphanet pays about 20 employees working for a management company to find unwanted information on the Internet and update the filter on a daily basis. The workers spend 2,000 man hours a month searching out the material.
"This is the most comprehensive filtering system in the nation right now," says Willis, who has a degree in microelectronics from the University of South Carolina.
It is superior to computer-based software programs that block some Internet access, Willis says, because those programs "can be bypassed by a computer savvy 12-year-old child in a matter of ten minutes."
Willis' mission for Alphanet, headquartered in a community about eight miles north of Little Rock, is to "increase the responsible user base over the Internet and to ultimately decrease the demand for material that is detrimental to both the family and to the business community."
That has helped him win contracts from pastors, churches, and several large corporations in Arkansas.
"I've been very pleased with [Alphanet]," says Ken Barnard, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Benton, Ark. "One of the best features is it has all the trash screened out."
Barnard says when he was using another provider before he subscribed to Alphanet, he went to a web search engine and typed in gospel. He says he was caught totally off guard when one site had very inappropriate pictures.
"[With Alphanet] there is no way you can get into stuff that you don't want to see," Barnard says.
Pat Hobbs, the librarian at Arkansas Baptist School System, the second-largest Christian school system in the state, says the school chose Alphanet because "they promised to screen out material that we would not want our students to see."
"And they were the first one in Arkansas that we heard advertised as being Christian based," Hobbs says.
Alphanet's proclamation on its home page (www.alpha-net.com) that it is a Christian company cost it a couple of contracts, Willis says. When some government employees noticed the Christian connection on Alphanet's web site, an executive with the governmental agency canceled its business with Alphanet.
Willis asked the executive why she had canceled. She said she was pleased with Alphanet's service and quality of access.
"But we feel it might be detrimental to our organization to be associated with a Christian provider instead of a secular provider," Willis quoted her as saying.
The cancellation caused Willis to seek counsel from his pastor, whom Willis says he admires immensely.
His pastor told him it wasn't necessary to proclaim on Alphanet's web site that it is a Christian company. What is most important, he said, was to live by a Christian example and operate the business as God wants to have it run.
"So we changed the terminology we used to describe us," Willis says. "Now we can actually go after the more secular business but we're not compromising our access.
"That's the one thing we will not compromise. That's setting a standard itself, a standard that no other provider in Arkansas will stand up to."