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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.