PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Free For All..?
December 1998

The country is awash with internet service providers rushing to give away access for free. Some of us predicted this was inevitable as IP and telephone lines seems to be part of the same business, and the notion that there was a enduring mass market to be had in charging people extra for phone calls was likely to come unstuck.

Well, it has. And how. First BT put the cat amongst the pigeons with the launch of its Click service - a simple no-frills connection for 1p on the call rate. Trouble was that it soon became apparent that BT sales people were using billing information to target the customers of other ISPs. The roof was raised, as you might imagine, since this an activity forbidden under BT's operating license.

Shades of the time when BA was poaching Virgin Upper Class customers, unfortunately, Mr Branson has too many distractions these days to lead BT to the altar for another seeing-to.

Oftel however observed that while the action appeared to be an abuse of BT's dominant position, it welcomed commitments subsequently made by BT that it would prevent Click+ telesales staff from having access to customer calling information. Wrist mildly tingling, I think.

But all this became curiously irrelevant, because of what Dixons tossed into the Internet Service Providers' pigeon loft with the launch of Freeserve. This was something more akin to the Beast Of Bodmin than a simple moggy.

The feathers have been flying ever since, especially when BT was told off for the way it was marketing it's "Click" service, using the olde worlde notion of payment as a disincentive, anyway.

But there are a couple of catches to look out for

"We use standard Microsoft software. Once you have signed-up, you are free to use any Internet browser. For the sign-up process you will need to have Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 installed on your computer. If you do not already have Internet Explorer, the Freeserve CD will install it for you…"
Remember the fun when IE4 was launched and how Demon's support line was jammed for weeks as hapless Windows 95 users got caught in the trap..? Well, the real sting in this tale comes with the 24 hour telephone technical support line (premium rate call)

Just a £1 an hour, guv. So either learn everything there is to know about connecting PCs to the internet by paying Demon £10 for a month of education, and then cancelling - or learn to talk fast..

So how does any other ISP compete? Well, let's consider some internet basics; and the most basic you can get is to go back the roots of the internet. It was conceived as a military network that was capable of withstanding nuclear attack. It was conceived to provide the man on the Clapham Omnibus, and 500,000 of his chums, with the means to go and download the Pammy Anderson newsgroups.

Being a diverse network of networks, the founders of the internet probably imagined that each network node would be responsible for no more than 256 hosts. However, the information cart track has rapidly evolved to become the Information Superhighway, and there are single point so of failure where literally hundreds of thousands of users are funnelled.

So what happens to large networks like MSN or AOL when a juggernaut jack-knifes on their carriageway of the superhighway? That's right, huge tailbacks, and outages that have ramifications that can last for days before the debris is cleared and the traffic flows normally again. How often have you heard from a user of large "mainstream" service that the mail has been "out", or that they have been getting engaged tones. Yet still the sign on, oblivious to the benefits of personalised domains and the like.

After all, what happened when the telephone appeared and everyone predicted the end of the mail? I rather suspect that more mail than ever was sent as a result of the stimulation of commerce facilitated by the telephone. Numerous enterprises have devised ways to sell services and add value to the basic "telephone call" - similarly, the more inventive ISPs suddenly faced with Armageddon as their dial-up revenue evaporates will have to try something a little more creative.

Think of the superhighway this way: some ISPs are huge overloaded coaches, sagging at the springs - others are smaller forms of "public transport" like Taxis, and at the luxury end of the market comes the limousine. Just because someone invented buses doesn't mean that people will not pay a premium for the convenience of a personal service with personal control. By piling the users onto their coaches and giving more users than ever a taste of the internet, we should applaud Dixons.

It can get worse

And just in case you hadn't noticed, the satellite TV revolution is powered by 6MB MPG2 format encoding. This is a huge saving of bandwidth on the 36Mbit of analogue, but already encoding technologies are available (following Moores Law) that get an acceptable TV transmission into just 400kBit. We are not faced with just 500 channels of Murdoch's Mediocrity, chaps and chapesses, this means that already the European satellite industry has room for 30,000 channels of everyman mediocrity.

We can only hope that around the time you read this, the Leonid Meteor storm due on November 23rd will have wiped the blighters out of orbit, and sanity will have returned.