God's New Little Acre: Booming Cyber-Espacio

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The president honored him.

The news media hounded him.

About 5,000 fans hailed him as he appeared at this city's Sports Palace, which previously has featured Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

But this was not just another superstar. It was Bill Gates--or, as one Mexican columnist put it, "God, to many people."

The Microsoft chairman's visit to Mexico last month, where he spoke about the Internet to a computer fair at the Sports Palace, gave an inkling of the excitement that cyber-espacio is generating south of the border.

The Internet culture in Mexico is still tiny; perhaps 50,000 computers have access to the worldwide network, according to Saul Cruz, director of Select/IDC, a market research firm.

But interest is booming. Companies providing connections to the Internet expect 300% growth in the market this year, Cruz said. And that's even before the government ends the monopoly that telephone giant Telmex enjoys. Next year, after other companies begin to compete, the price of hooking up to the Internet is expected to plunge.

"Even parents are realizing it's new and interesting," said Jorge del Conde, a 20-year-old computer major at the prestigious ITAM university in the capital.

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The Internet has already made its mark on Mexican culture. Just consider the uprising by the Zapatista rebels in the southern jungles of Chiapas two years ago.

Their leader, known as Subcommander Marcos, sent his sardonic, windy communiques over the Internet. Sympathizers around the world clicked on to the Marcos page on the World Wide Web.

It was, declared Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria Trevino, a war of "paper, ink and Internet."

Nowadays, Mexicans can bank on the Internet. They can make hotel reservations, check airline schedules, even see how the government's foreign reserves are holding up.

But with businesses just beginning to access the Net, the biggest group of users is still believed to be university students. And many want fiestas, not finance.

That's certainly the case with Amira Sivel, 21, an economics student at ITAM. In a crowded, glass-enclosed hall lined with Digital and IBM PCs, she is venturing timidly onto the information supercarretera.

"His name is Alberto," she says, peering into her computer, where a student from across town is discussing, curiously, human alienation.

"He's the first person I've met on the Internet."

Around her, in a pitter-patter of clicks, 15 other students are happily "talking" with friends as far away as England.

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More than 2,000 of the 5,000 ITAM students are online. "It's trendy to say you have an Internet account," said Francisco Suarez, a 22-year-old teaching assistant in computers. But if ITAM represents the future, Mexico's computer present is much more modest.

Few Mexicans have mounted pages on the Web. Only a small, mostly English-speaking elite explore the Internet. And forget about trying to get a decent phone line from the countryside.

Still, pioneers are introducing computer magazines. Even newspapers now print lists of addresses for exciting new Web sites.

Like Apple Computer. Or the Web Rats' Magazine.

Or--don't have a cow--"Los Simpsons."

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Mary Beth Sheridan's e-mail address is: Mary.Beth.Sheridan@latimes.com

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