NETWORK : Virgin on the Net?

After records, air travel, vodka and cola, Richard Branson is setting his sights on cyberspace. By Stephen Pritchard

Last Thursday, Virgin joined the ranks of the more than 150 companies selling Internet access in the United Kingdom. For the entertainment-to- travel group headed by Richard Branson, it was an uncharacteristically quiet affair.

There were no balloons or stunts: just the staged roll-out of CD-Roms, boxed in yellow but with the distinctive Virgin label, in computer software outlets and Virgin Megastores. The disks offer a three-month free trial to the Virgin network. Mr Branson obviously hopes that word of mouth will make him a serious player in cyberspace.

Virgin is no stranger to computers: Virgin Interactive is one of the largest leisure software houses. The company tried, and left, the PC marketplace a few years ago and is now the largest European manufacturer of floppy disks.

Nor is Virgin a stranger to competitive or complex markets: witness its foray into air travel and, more recently, personal finance. But cracking the Internet will be a challenge, even for Virgin's marketing might. The field is crowded, revenues are unpredictable and customer loyalty thin.

Alex Dale, Virgin Internet's publishing director, hopes to tackle at least the latter by giving users a much higher level of customer service than they are used to. The company has a charter for its services, setting out in detail what Virgin surfers can expect (for example, the capacity of its links to the United States, or the number of users per modem). It has a 24-hour help desk; engineers can come to your home to set up your PC's Internet link, and the Virgin home pages contain a detailed guide to the Internet.

Virgin Internet is a joint venture with the telecommunications firm International CableTel; that the partners are serious is shown by an investment of between pounds 50m and pounds 100m over three years. The ambition is to reach the top five service providers in the UK.

Mr Dale believes that the Virgin brand name might be enough to persuade computer owners to pick up the disk for a free trial. The rest - winning paying subscribers at pounds 10 a month for unlimited access, or pounds 6 plus 2p a minute after five free hours - depends on the service living up to its promises. "The product stands up on its own two feet," Mr Dale says. "It would be a good product, even if it did not have the Virgin name on it."

On paper, the Virgin Internet technology looks impressive. Modems support speeds of up to 56,000 baud using a new protocol called x2, pioneered by US Robotics. The backbone for the system is provided by International CableTel, which already runs the network that broadcasts terrestrial TV and Vodafone's mobile phone signals. Virgin will trial cable modems in the second quarter of next year, and broadband radio by the end of 1997. Mr Dale describes this process as "developing an alternative superhighway to BT".

On the Internet itself, Virgin's strategy is a halfway house between services such as CompuServe or America Online, which charge by time online for their own bespoke content, and straightforward Internet service providers such as Demon or Pipex.

Virgin will provide its own content, three-quarters of which is in the public domain. The rest is restricted to Virgin customers, but there is no access charge for pounds 10 subscribers. Some of the content, Mr Dale admits, will flag other Virgin brands, though he stresses that sites will not be biased towards his firm's wares. Other services include Autonomy, an intelligent agent that searches the Net for users, and the search engines Excite and Muscat.

Content does not come free, so Virgin is looking beyond subscriptions for other sources of income. The first is likely to be transactions, according to Mr Dale: shopping online, with payments taking place over the Internet. The second will be advertising. Mr Dale is certain that the Internet will move from an information source and entertainment medium to include shopping. "At some point, people will buy their groceries over this," he predicts.

For now, though, his challenge is in meeting Virgin's goal of broadening the appeal of the Internet. "The Internet, as it currently exists, is good for enthusiasts," he says. Indeed, even computer users have not embraced the Net in the numbers the pundits predicted. Mr Dale suggests that much of the Net is hype and little action. "Eighty-five per cent of the country have heard of the Internet," he says. "Of that 85 per cent, only 10 or 15 per cent have any idea what it actually is."

Even among computer owners, a minority use the Internet. According to the company, as few as 10 per cent are connected, although 40,000 people come online each month.

Mr Dale believes that making the Internet easy to use will make a real difference. This is the reason behind the home installation service currently on trial, the help pages and the software package, as well as VAT-inclusive pricing. Would-be subscribers can even order a modem through Virgin.

Mr Dale likens the development of the Net to the growth of the phone system. When phones first came along, he points out, someone else had to connect calls. He must be hoping that a substantial number of the 40,000 monthly "newbies" will choose Virgin to connect themn

Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Voices
voices Furore is yet another example of shameful Westminster evasion, says Nigel Farage
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
News
Matthew Mcnulty and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Jamaica Inn'
mediaHundreds complain over dialogue levels in period drama
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
peopleJay Z and Beyoncé to buy £5.5m London townhouse
Voices
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
musicWhy do musicians play into old age?
News
peopleMan repeatedly tried to enter her homes in Los Angeles and London
Arts & Entertainment
With Jo Joyner in 'Trying Again'
tvHe talks to Alice Jones on swapping politics for pillow talk
News
Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh
peopleCountry Life magazine's list of 'gallant' public figures throws light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Sport
John Terry goes down injured in the 70th minute
sportAtletico Madrid 0 Chelsea 0: Blues can finish the job at Stamford Bridge, but injuries to Terry and Cech are a concern for Mourinho
Student
student
News
<b>Rebecca Adlington</b>
<br />This, the first British swimmer to win two
Olympic gold medals in 100 years, is the eversmiling
face of the athletes who will, we're
confident, make us all proud at London 2012
peopleRebecca Adlington on 'nose surgery'
Arts & Entertainment
tvJudge for yourself
Life & Style
tech
News
Tough call: is the psychological distress Trott is suffering an illness? (Getty)
healthJonathan Trott and the problems of describing mental illness
Life & Style
23 April 2014: Google marks St George's Day with a drawing depicting England's patron saint slaying a fire-breathing dragon
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Projects Financial Analyst - Global Technology firm

    £55000 - £62000 per annum + outstanding benefits and bonus: Pro-Recruitment Gr...

    Reception Teacher

    £120 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Reception teacher required for an Outs...

    Commercial B2B Pricing Specialist - Global Bids and Tenders

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + excellent company benefits : Pro-Recruitment Group...

    DT Teacher - Food Technology

    £90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job We are currently recr...

    Day In a Page

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
    Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

    Sam Wallace

    Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
    Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

    Through the screen

    British Pathé opens its archives
    The man behind the papier mâché mask

    Frank Sidebottom

    The man behind the papier mâché mask
    Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
    Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

    Boston runs again

    Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
    40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

    40 years of fostering and holding the babies

    In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents