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On-line service courts advertisers


Pete Celano spent several years working in the computer software industry. So it's no surprise that he never fancied himself one day becoming a newspaper publisher.

But the more the Columbia resident thinks about his year-old venture, a consumer-oriented on-line information service, the more he thinks of it as "really an electronic newspaper."

The health, financial and travel information that Mr. Celano's Consumer Information Network offers is free to computer users who dial up the access number via computer modem at 410-381-4256.

Mr. Celano provides information that he gets through abstracting services, which glean and condense magazine and professional journal articles. The electronic hub for the operation is in the basement of his home, where the company's PCs, modems and phone lines are set up.

Where Mr. Celano is trying to turn a profit is on advertising -- the bread and butter of any newspaper's revenues.

He has found some potential advertisers resistant to the idea of pitching products and services through an on-line computer service.

"Initially, a lot of the people I'd contact would be like 'On-line? What's that?' " he said.

With persistence and the recent flurry of media attention about the booming use of Internet -- a computer service that lets users tap into everything from electronic bulletin boards to library data bases worldwide -- Mr. Celano and his wife and business partner, Marie, have landed about 20 companies as advertisers on a trial basis.

Advertising on the service costs $500 a month. Advertisements are matched with topics available through Consumer Information's service.

For example, a caller who accessed articles about men's health would be presented with advertisements on the computer screen for prostate cancer medications. Someone reading about exercise would be presented with an advertisement on the monitor from Bowflex, an exercise equipment manufacturer.

Mr. Celano also has added a fax service that lets users of the consumer line request a one-page fax from an advertiser.

"A lot of advertisers still aren't quite sure exactly what Internet is, but they know a lot of people are using it and it may be this untapped source for getting customers," he said.

When Mr. Celano, 32, launched his venture a year ago with the help of a $20,000 loan from the Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund, his service could only be accessed through the local phone number.

Callers were linked to one of eight phone lines for the on-line computer information services.

"That limited the amount of people that could access our service," said Mr. Celano. "We began searching for a way to open it up to more people without spending a fortune on phone lines."

His ticket to the world turned out to be close by in Clarksville, where a couple of entrepreneurs had established Clark Internet, a service that lets computer users access Internet worldwide. Customers pay a $23 monthly fee for the access.

Stephen Balbach, vice president at Clark Internet, says Mr. Celano's service is one of about 10, including National Public Radio, providing published information to users.

Consumer Information Network's address on the Internet is: WWW.IIS.COM/CINET.

With his service available through Clark Internet, which has a capacity of 1,000 people per second, Mr. Celano's user base has broadened substantially.

Today, he estimates Consumer Information Network is getting 40,000 calls weekly from about 18,000 individuals.

Said Mr. Celano, "It's kind of neat to think that someone in Sweden or San Francisco can call up our service and what they are accessing is based right in my basement."

Mr. Celano also has plans to broaden his financial information service, called Dialwealth, and the travel information service, called Dialtravel. Both offer only a limited number of topics now. The health information service, Dialhealth, has a broad range of articles abstracted from magazine and medical journals.

He also hopes to pique interest among advertisers in a telephone-based information and fax service he has launched that provides news on health, finance and travel.

The service is geared to senior citizens and others who may not be sophisticated about computers. The service, available through a toll-free number (800) 294-3258, provides callers with "news bites." For example, a current health "news bite" is about a Brown University survey on the health benefits of walking.

"The best case scenario is we'll become a very successful electronic newspaper. The worst case will be we become a free source of information for people," said Mr. Celano.

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