Even after almost five years online, I still ring my Internet service provider around three times per month, particularly after trying to upgrade my set-up. I expect this is the case with all but the most hardened wired warriors.
So even in the face of Windows 98 convolutions, my ISP has been at my side in the battle against Redmond, sending me all the patches needed to cure half-baked browser updates and holding my hand through various other issues. I am confident that whatever the future may bring, I can rely on the Internet as my work tool, thanks to the input, advice and resourcefulness of the technical support staff. Not only my work but my lifestyle depends on the free and easy access to the gurus on the other end of the telephone line.
However, the winds of change are sweeping through the industry and some ISPs are offering a new, different kind of connection. These make use of seductive phrases like "free Internet", only to add in the small print that the technical support will be offered at pounds 1 per minute (i.e. Dixons' FreeServe).
Since an average conversation with my ISP's tech support comes to around 15 minutes, this means that the first time I hit a problem, I'd get a bill higher than my current Internet subscription. Heaven forbid if I have two problems in a month, as that would lead to a fee more than double what I pay today. So FreeServe really means "10 minutes of free tech support".
Even if the FreeServe helpdesk were well staffed (which it isn't, as I had to hold for more than 10 minutes on Saturday morning, paying for the privilege), you would spend the equivalent of a pounds 10 monthly subscription on just explaining your problem, never mind getting an answer back.
The problems with connections and the need for help in solving them are not restricted to newbies. Even if you are a red-hot techie, there are times when the reasons for a connection problem are not related to your ignorance but are caused by problems with your ISP's hardware, or even to network problems somewhere in California. Since the Internet is not terribly transparent, it takes a phone call to your ISP to find out if the problems are yours or theirs. As long as those calls are free, I'm prepared to give a little leeway to the performance issue, accepting that the Net is still "under construction". The Internet is not perfect, but with free support it is just about survivable.
We have not yet reached an online nirvana where all upgrades of hardware or software, both by user and ISP, are executed seamlessly and we are not going to be there for a number of years to come. In particular, we are not going to get there with FreeServe, which, without asking, installs Microsoft's Internet Explorer on your hard disk. Since it is practically a new operating system in itself, it will change your configurations beyond all recognition. This will definitely require a call to tech support, if only to ask how to get back to your original settings.
It appears that between Energis (the partner behind FreeServe) and Microsoft, a little ploy has been constructed that starts with tempting users with free Internet access, surprising them with IE4.0 installation, wreaking havoc with their machines, then forcing them to call an understaffed call centre and spend the better part of pounds 20 waiting on the phone to get help. This is the best business model for an ISP so far, but one which smacks of underhanded tactics, or complete ignorance of the realities of Internet technology and the level of its maturity. The authors of the exercise laugh all the way to the bank, but the user ends up feeling ripped off .
What is most worrying from the Internet industry point of view is that it took four years of hard work and building trust between ISPs and home users. The relationship between technical support and the home Internet subscriber must be based on trust, as in the Net's environment of unpredictability, the consumer should not be forced to foot the bill for the unstable technology.
Only when there is 100 per cent reliability of technology, completely solid upgrade paths, infallible routers and, most important, a solid, global Internet network, will it be fair to ask the home user to pay for technical support. Any earlier attempts to charge fees for support will surely backfire, with users losing trust in the system.
I for one will be looking forward to the first case of Microsoft being sued by a home user for the cost of a support call if the reason for failure of connection is a bug in Internet Explorer.
As for FreeServe, my advice is to sit this one out. There will undoubtedly be lots more good Internet access deals to come. Just watch this space for evaluations of any new offers and, in the meantime, e-mail me with your views on ISP technical support.