Demon Internet, the biggest UK access provider, is struggling to repair its reputation after its membership, which has doubled since Christmas, found it increasingly difficult to gain access to the Internet. Demon, along with other access providers, has been besieged by hordes of computer users anxious to sign up and find out about the "Net".
The increasing use of the Internet as a low-cost substitute for the telephone is also causing problems. "That is where the first big crack is beginning to show," said David Warlock of Electronic Publishing Services. "Motorola is now bundling the software and a microphone that allows people to make calls with their modems. This will cause huge pressures."
The Internet is an international computer network consisting of hundreds of smaller networks linked by the telephone system. These networks are run by companies, governments or universities, and can be tapped into by anyone with a computer and a modem to connect the computer to a phone line - paying only local phone charges plus any fees charged by service- providers such as Demon. An estimated 30 million people are linked up to the Net worldwide. Numbers are growing by 10 per cent a month.
The Internet's main use is as a conduit for electronic mail. It also carries a mass of information and bulletin boards, on which people can "chat" about anything. Much of its recent popularity has come from the development of the World Wide Web, which can carry high-quality photographs or graphics.
Demon, a software house, started to offer access to the Internet in June 1992. Users, who paid £10 a month, were at first all technically literate and could cope with the idiosyncracies of the system. But last year non-technical people started to sign up in droves, attracted by the low cost. After Christmas Demon's service deteriorated badly. Users found lines into the Internet and the Demon help- desk were constantly busy.
The company says it has sorted these problems out - it is doubling the number of modems and has 70 staff, against six in 1992 - but the pressures on the Internet and on access providers remain intense. "Demon got singled out because it is the biggest, but I doubt whether many of the other providers can provide that much better a service," said Roger Green, publisher of Internet magazine.
Easynet, another provider, is trying to ride the wave by increasing capacity at an exponential rate. It is closely associated with the Cyberia cafs, which have banks of computers on which customers can try out the Internet. The first was opened in London in September. There are now four. Cafs are opening in Paris, Singapore and Milan. Keith Teare, an Easynet director, says he expects eventually to own 10 and to franchise an unlimited number. Virgin is planning an Internet caf chain, to be called Zero Caf. This will all increase the pressure. "The crunch time will be this Christmas," said Mr Green. "That is when modem sales will start to soar."