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By Kristin McClendon
Arizona Summer Wildcat
July 8, 1998

Potential Provider Problems

Arizona Summer Wildcat

Asingle letter of assurance was plenty for University of Arizona officials last week as they signed a contract with a Tucson-based Internet service provider to handle all UA off-campus, dial-up accounts.

That company, Dakota Communications, settled a January

lawsuit out of court June 23 stemming from a computer e-mail bomb that allegedly originated from their system.

After a letter from Dakota attorney Tom Slutes described the bomb accusation as "totally unfounded," a team of Center for Computing and Information Technology officials and other campus figures approved the deal. E-mail bombs are repeatedly sent email message that can overload a computer system.

Neither Dakota nor the plaintiff, Tucson-based American Communications Services Inc., would comment on the case, but several former Dakota customers and others familiar with the Internet business in Tucson say the firm does not have the cleanest record in terms of service quality and that the UA should be wary about the new deal.

"It's too big a contract for gambling," said Roger Post in an e-mail to the Arizona Summer Wildcat. Post heads InterZone Online, another Tucson Internet provider that did not compete with Dakota for the UA deal.

In an e-mail to CCIT networking manager Dan Roman, however, Post called Dakota a "SPAM factory," or a known producer of unsolicited junk e-mail which is banned by many Internet service providers. Roman had solicited outside advice to gauge Dakota's reputation.

Dakota Communications President Pam Ahrar, who has headed the three-year-old firm since her estranged husband John resigned a year ago, said the company is an anti-SPAM organization.

"We actively search to monitor our network to make sure our clients are not sending SPAM mail," Ahrar stated, adding they have had clients send SPAM in the past, but they were fined and their services terminated.

When contacted by the Arizona Summer Wildcat, Roman would say only that university attorneys reviewed Dakota's letter and said there was no reason the UA should not go through with Dakota's low-bid proposal.

Under that deal, Dakota will handle all UA Internet dial-up accounts that use the Point to Point Protocol, or PPP. Such a connection allows the use of e-mail clients like Eudora and graphical browsers, like Netscape Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Students, faculty, alumni, retirees and departments would be able to sign up for a lesser rate than Dakota's normal prices.

Dakota's Past

The past may be key to Dakota Communications, as many of the complaints stem from the time when John Ahrar still ran the company. He had a hand in the company until May and played a direct part in many of the contract negotiations with the university.

Rudy Ramirez of Vacu-Fence Co., a former Dakota client, said John Ahrar allegedly shoved him into a doorframe two years ago after Ramirez asked him for a reimbursement stemming from poor services

"That is no way to treat a client - very unprofessional," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said Dakota made promises it didn't keep, was consistently short on deadlines and cost him delays with his business.

Pam Ahrar said she "vaguely remembers the incident" and would not comment further.

Several previous clients and professionals in the Tucson Internet community also expressed dissatisfaction with Dakota Communications' services.

Jim Server with Co-Motion Rubber Stamps Inc. was a Dakota client for one year and discontinued service with them a year ago because of inadequate service.

"They weren't meeting our needs," Server said. "The service that was expected - we didn't get."

KVOA-TV, another former client, parted ways with Dakota two years ago.

Web master Mike Griffith said Dakota was short on back-up service, that the connections it had were unreliable, and the system was down considerably more often than the station's present provider.

"The shop was small, but they had 24-hour tech service," Griffith said. He added that KVOA-TV left Dakota because business was growing, and Dakota could no longer fit the station's needs.

Several other professionals in Tucson's Web community also had negative feelings about Dakota Communications, but were unwilling to identify themselves for fear of alienating future business partners.

A spokesman for one former client, a large Arizona manufacturing firm, said John Ahrar blamed persistent system failures on hackers and Internet espionage.

According to the spokesman, Dakota often did not have back-ups of their materials in place to prevent information loss in case of system failures.

Pam Ahrar denied there were any problems, attributing the complaints to competition.

"This is a very small Web community; competitors try to rock the boat because business isn't always nice," she said.

Project History

The UA Information Technology Council recommended about a year ago that the university look to an outside provider to handle services for individuals and departments that wish to have off-campus Internet access. They concluded for the university to do it itself would be too expensive, and an outside contractor could more readily sustain such a system.

After the Information Technology Council's recommendation, the contracting department outlined services that an ISP must meet in order to gain the contract with the university, such as support desk hours, Internet connectivity, and fiberoptic capabilities.

The first request for proposals, or RFP, was released in August 1997 and resulted in few responses that met the criteria. The review board then revised their stipulations and prepared a second formal RFP, released in mid-December 1997.

Several other companies bid, including MCI, US West, Earthlinks and Opus 1. In the end, the decision was narrowed down to Dakota Communications and First Internet Alliance. The final decision was based on a point system evaluated from the service the company can provide and the cost of those services.

Dakota Communications did offer the lowest bid, Roman said. The company also met all the necessary requirements the university had for an acceptable provider.

Sue Lockwood, senior buyer with UA Procurement and Contracting Services, said in addition to the low bid, Dakota Communications was one of the companies that offered a toll-free number for those connecting from Phoenix.

As it stands, the contract begins Aug. 3 and will last for two years, after which it can be renewed for three years in one-year increments. The contract can be canceled at any time by the university with a 30-day notice.

The Last Word

With the UA contract under its belt, a Dakota attorney said the company is looking to improve its reputation.

"It's being run very differently," said Dakota attorney Philip Grant. "The people who run Dakota are very competent and the university should be happy with the service."

Post, who runs InterZone Online, however, maintained the UA still is making a mistake.

"Given the change in management, Dakota should possibly be given a second chance - the UA contract is not the chance they should be given."

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