How well are you being served?

Exploit the community spirit of the Net when choosing a service provider, advises Stephen Pritchard

With more than 130 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) competing to sell you an account, connecting to the Net should be a buyers' market. Far from it. Put any group of users together and talk will turn to tales of busy sites, slow connections, dropped calls and impenetrable technical support.

The Net is still a young market and teething troubles are inevitable. The early subscribers - the pioneers of the public, dial-up Net - suffered badly. The ISPs were wrong-footed by the enormous demand for subscriptions. Some, such as Demon Internet, which was launched originally for the knowledgeable PC hobbyist, admit that they simply could not cope.

However, competition has forced the ISPs to pay more attention to customer service, especially technical support. The better ISPs devote considerable resources to "hand-holding" new users, particularly in the first few days of going online.

The entry of larger companies, including BT and UUNET Pipex, to the personal Internet market has helped. So has competition from the online services. Firms such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe, which now offers full Internet access, stress their ease of use.

Internet companies still place considerable emphasis on pretty "front- end" software, to handle the Net connection and vital tasks such as file transfer or e-mail. But given the richness of free, public domain and shareware programs available on the Net, this effort is an expensive way of reinventing the wheel. It is the quality of the connection that matters.

Judging this is not always easy. In most parts of the UK, users face a three-way choice: a national ISP, such as Demon or Pipex, an online service (CompuServe or AOL) or a locally based provider. As recently as last year, this newspaper's advice was to pick the company that could provide a "Point of Presence" (the number that your modem dials) nearest to you, so as to avoid crippling long-distance call charges. Now this is less of an issue. All the large ISPs operate a network of virtual points of presence (VPOPs in Pipex's language, ROMPS from Demon). These use the latest telephone technology to switch a call from a local number to a computer that can be 100 miles away, at no cost to the user. An alternative offered by some services, such as BT Net and Pipeline, is a single local- call rate number using an 0345, 0645 or 0845 code prefix. This has an advantage for travellers: you do not have to reprogram your software to access the Net away from home or the office.

The waters are muddied further by the fact that the Internet industry makes use of a number of alliances, especially between local and national companies. BT and Pipex, for example, act both as wholesalers and retailers of Net accounts. A local provider is unlikely to own its own "backbone" - the high-speed links that connect its servers to the rest of the Net. Instead, it will rent this from one of the larger companies.

Sometimes a firm may use more than one backbone provider. The subscriber needs to check not only on the ISP's reputation but also on that of the company which is providing the backbone links.

As a result of the confusion, buyers seem to be selecting ISPs on price. This is not always wise. Some ISPs prefer to offer added-value services that might save money in the longer term. The Dorchester-based ISP West Dorset Internet, for example, sends an engineer to each customer's site to set up their connections, while Pipex and Demon offer free Web space, so dial-up customers can have their own Web pages.

The level of service offered by large ISPs is generally good. Pipex, for example, stresses that it is the UK's best-quality provider, and this is backed by consistently high ratings in tests in publications such as Internet magazine. But Pipex Dial is also one of the most expensive services. "We like to position Dial as a business strength Internet connection," explains David Barrett, head of corporate communications. "We are not cheap-and-cheerful, pounds 10-a-month people."

Mr Barrett is confident that users who depend on the Net will be happy to pay for Pipex's premium service, based on the company's reputation. As yet, however, there are no industry-wide performance standards. If there were, subscribers would find it far easier to choose a supplier. Such standards are being considered by the newly formed industry body, the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA). Its first move was to agree a code of practice that governs issues such as decency and fair trading. But quality will be a key goal for the association. Its chairman, Shez Hamill, sees the ISPA developing along similar lines to those of trade bodies such as the Federation of Master Builders: firms have to reach certain quality levels before they can join and display the organisation's logo.

There is support within the industry for some agreed level of standards. Pipex, an ISPA founder member, already gives service level guarantees to its business customers with leased lines or ISDN connections. But it is still too early for formal agreements for modem users. "Dial-up customers have a right to expect certain levels of service, but that is not codified," Mr Barrett explains. "We are still in transition between early adopters and the mass market."

Competition from across the Atlantic could well speed up this process. Pipeline, part of the US PSINet group, entered the national UK market earlier this year. Dorothy Briggs, marketing manager, believes that British reserve might be holding back standards. "At the moment, there is a little bit of the British 'I will put up with this'," she says. "As there are more service providers, there will be an awakening, and people will not accept a second-rate service."

Until then, it pays to shop around. On the Net, caveat emptor is a sensible guiding principle. New users should exploit the much vaunted "community spirit" of the Net. Until the industry agrees its own standards of service, the best way to find the right provider is to ask friends and colleagues who are already online.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss