Surf the Web and save the Earth

You've heard of environment-friendly paper towels, so why not a "green" Internet service provider? Paul Gerstenberger wants to give it a try.

The 44-year-old entrepreneur says he is investing US$2 million in EcoISP. The venture may be the first dialup ISP (Internet service provider) to pledge 17 percent of its monthly fee to the environmental cause of the customer's choice.

"Most of the things I do in the world attempt to do something good for the planet [and] at the same time make money," says Gerstenberger, who is both founder and chief executive officer of EcoISP.

EcoISP, which officially launches this week, is essentially a for-profit affinity Internet company that donates $2.75 of each member's monthly $15.95 fee to charity. When you sign up for an account you choose who gets the donation by picking from 3,300 green causes, ranging from the Audubon Society to the World Wildlife Fund.

EcoISP offers unlimited dialup Internet access. Members get six e-mail addresses and 10MB of Web site space. Eco's backend provider is Qwest Communications (www.qwest.com), which has 4,100 points of presence, or local dialup phone numbers, around the US. Qwest will also handle around-the-clock customer service.

Not just another ISP

EcoISP strives to be more than an ISP. Gerstenberger says he hopes to build an online green community through an EcoISP Web portal. The service's home page offers community facilities--chat rooms and bulletin boards, for example--along with links to environmental news and lists of green special-interest groups.

Pitching ecology to kids is central to Gerstenberger's plan. Interactive Macromedia Flash games accessible from the homepage will feature furry animals called EcoPals.

"I'm not Bill Gates, but I hope EcoISP will pour millions (of dollars) into making the planet a better place to live," Gerstenberger says.

His strategy is to partner up with as many environmental and socially conscious groups he can, and market his services to that constituency. He is already targeting Deepak Chopra's claimed wired following of 12 million. He's also inked deals to market his ISP to the folks at the American Forests, African Wildlife Foundation, and Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Can green bring in enough green

Experts are skeptical that a green Internet service provider can succeed. "Small ISPs are endangered species themselves," says Justin Beech, founder of DSLReports.com (www.dslreports.com), a Web site dedicated to tracking the health of service providers. But, he adds, the environmental community component boosts the EcoISP potential lifespan considerably.

Despite the hurdles, EcoISP will try to save the whales, deplete greenhouse gasses, and patch the ozone layer. You can't abandon hope, Gerstenberger says. "We hope this will be an easy way for people to donate to the environment without having to think about it."

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