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Seeking a cheaper on-line on ramp

Sean T. Darcy is trying to get phone giants MCI and Sprint to plug into Hernando County.

Darcy, a soft-spoken man who works in the chemical lab at Florida Crushed Stone's cement plant, is leading a petition drive to persuade MCI and Sprint to set up local access numbers in Hernando.

Because of Hernando's small size, he faces on uphill battle. But if he's successful, computer users in the office or at home could save money.

Local access numbers, or nodes, enable personal computer users to connect with on-line services such as Internet, Delphi, America Online and CompuServe without having to pay long-distance charges.

"When I bought a modem in April, it wasn't until I tried to log on to the (on-line) services that I was aware of the toll charges, and found out that we had no local access number," said Darcy, who is 31. "It costs a lot of money to log on for an hour and use their services."

Major phone companies have local access nodes in big cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg, but generally not in communities the size of Spring Hill.

Darcy thinks that's unfair. "People who subscribe to the services ought to get the same local number that a lot of other people have."

Other similar-sized counties, such as Indian River and Bay, have local access numbers; and Hernando has been ranked as among the fastest growing counties in the country, Darcy notes.

He believes that access numbers could mean big savings to PC users.

For example, subscribers to America Online pay about $9 to communicate through E-mail or scan financial information. After the first five hours, however, Hernando County users pay an additional $12 an hour in the evening.

With a local access number, there wouldn't be charges beyond the base fee of $9 a month.

"You could save yourself a couple of hundred dollars a year _ that's just for America Online," he says.

Not surprisingly, Darcy hasn't struggled to garner support for his cause. Since starting a week ago, he has gathered 30 signatures and has dropped off petitions at computer stores.

"It's something that I'm definitely in favor of," said Rodney Willis, a programer at Cornerstone Technology in Brooksville. "I'm trying to get as many people to sign it as I can."

Local access numbers would help lower costs not only for computer stores but other businesses, he said. For instance, an architectural firm that uses Auto Cad, a drafting and engineering program, could use America Online to get a question answered from another user instead of paying to speak to an Auto Cad employee.

But Willis isn't optimistic that Hernando will get its local nodes anytime soon.

Yvette Fulton, a spokeswoman for Sprint, based in Kansas City, Mo., said Darcy's petition isn't unusual. Communities around the country have been organizing such petitions and Sprint welcomes them, she said.

"For us it's a question of the cost of doing business versus the profit," Fulton said.

Hernando probably hasn't been targeted for local access either because of its few PC users, or because Sprint wasn't aware of the possible demand. "It's possible we could put one in there," she said.

Frank Walter, spokesman for MCI Communications Corp. in Atlanta, said MCI would consider Darcy's petition but has no plans to set up access in Hernando. He said installing the necessary switching equipment is a "significant investment" that has to be justified by market demand.

"I think it (the petition) shows that the information superhighway is reaching well into smaller communities," Walter said.

Darcy said he hopes to get at least 800 signatures for his petition, and will mail it to Sprint and MCI shortly before Christmas _ a sort of wish list from Hernando's computer buffs.