July 13, 1996
Mindvox, Long a Haven
For Hackers, Signs Off
By KATHERINE CAVANAUGH
At a time when countless anti-hacker and security software programs are being
promoted with a great deal of fanfare, a one-time notorious hacker haven has
quietly and discreetly signed off.
This month, Mindvox -- an Internet service provider that was once home to some
of New York's most gifted and controversial hackers -- pulled the plug on its
modems and ceased to provide Internet access to its customers.
Aside from its distinctive subscriber base, the company was also notable for
having been been among the very first services in Manhattan to provide dial-up
access to the Internet.
It is the second community-based New York Internet service to fall this year
to competitive pressures in the access provider industry as large telecommunications
companies like AT&T, MCI and Pacific Telesis have entered the market with aggressive
pricing plans and razor-thin margins. On July 2, PSINet announced that it was
selling the Pipeline service, another New York Internet pioneer, to MindSpring
Enterprises Inc., a regional access provider based in Atlanta, Ga., for about
$23 million. ?
But whereas Pipeline had been established to encourage novices to take to the
Net, Mindvox had from the start been a haven for hackers. ?
Founded in February 1992 by two former members of the Legion of Doom hacker
group, Bruce Fancher and Patrick Kroupa, Mindvox, a division of Phantom Access
Technologies, Inc., was launched as both a bulletin board service and Internet
access provider. At its peak in 1994 the service reported a subscriber list
of about 3,000 members.
As of the first of June, the number of subscribers had dwindled to 550, and
the founders decided to sell the firm's pioneering Internet division to Interport
Communications, a competing, Manhattan-based service located in the same building
on lower Broadway. The financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
the sale agreement, Mindvox subscribers will be offered accounts at Interport
where they will receive uninterrupted e-mail service and home page hosting and
will retain their current Mindvox "phantom.com" domain addresses.
Early on, the Mindvox Internet and bulletin board service became known for
its distinctive cultural mix of cyberpunks, Gen-X slacker types, cutting-edge
hackers (including Len Rose who spent 14 months in prison after he was charged
with stealing an AT&T proprietary source code -- a charge he denies to this
day), sci-fi fanatics, cyberspace philosophers and a diverse gathering of artists,
writers and musicians. ?
"When I started looking for local New York City Internet access, the only companies
that existed were Panix and Mindvox," said Tom Higgins, a former rock band member
and longtime Mindvox subscriber. "To me, Mindvox seemed like a lot more fun.
Most of the other services in New York established regulations and had thought-police
monitoring their forums, but on Mindvox you could always say what you wanted."
Fancher recalled: "We started during the pre-Wired magazine days, and our members
were people who were sophisticated about computer technology and were interested
in speculating on where all of this was going." Phantom Access Technologies
took its name from a hacker program called Phantom Access, Fancher explained.
Indeed, the service was also notable for the Round Table, an on-line forum
created to discuss the impact of Operation Sun Devil, a nationwide roundup of
computer hackers in 1990 that resulted in the arrests and convictions of several
members of the Legion of Doom.
The Round Table, hosted by a former Treasury agent, became a gathering place
for hackers, system administrators and law enforcement officials to debate computer
theft and security.
Other Mindvox members and enthusiasts have included the actor Wil Wheaton of
"Star Trek: The Next Generation," and several rock musicians, including Dee-Lite,
Billy Idol and Kurt Larson, lead singer and lyricist for the group Information
Fancher said that he and his partners would focus their future efforts on software
development, network integration and computer consulting through another company
he has formed, Evolution Online Systems. He said he also planned to continue
to develop on-line content concerning cyberspace and its ongoing impact on society
and culture, reflecting the distinctive flavor of the Mindvox community. ?
"We'll be dealing with the abstract rather than the concrete implications of
cyberspace and topics relating to identity, community and shared virtual spaces,"
Fancher said. ?
He said the decision to sell the service reflected the recognition that the
state of the Internet access provider business in New York had become highly
unstable and that the entry of AT&T into the business and the launch of its
low pricing model presented a formidable challenge to the small independents.
And Fancher predicted that an ongoing shake-out was inevitable. ?
"We started to arrange financing to buy new equipment for the service," he
said. "But then we asked ourselves, why should we go and get financing for something
that will ultimately be taken over by NYNEX, AT&T and Time Warner?" ?
Interport Communications now claims about 7,500 customers in the New York area
and is planning to expand to other areas. It recently began providing service
to Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut, Nassau County and Westchester
and in Putnam, Rockland and Southern Orange counties. By the end of the third
quarter 96, the company plans to offer Internet access to Suffolk county and
northern New Jersey as well. ?
"Our target is to become a major player in the Northeast," said John Riordon,
executive vice president of Interport.