Just how much are you prepared to pay to connect to the Internet? #20 a month? #10 a month? Only #5 a month? Like most people wanting a dialup connection to the Net, you have no intention of paying more than anyone else, and you have every intention of getting a good deal. So what is the solution?
For thousands, the answer seems to be in ignoring unknown providers like Cheap and CheerfulNet and opting for the well-known brands such as CompuServe, AOL, Microsoft Network, Pipex and Demon. This is borne out by the most recent subscriber figures which put these companies in the top five ranking.
This is good news for anyone who is happy with their choice; not so good for new or smaller service providers that are increasingly seeing the consumer market opt for the well-known brands because they daren't shop around. Increasingly, it is not just branding. It is also because free offers make it more worthwhile to opt for one of these companies than go elsewhere. In fact, we have now reached the point at which canny subscribers could exist for almost a year without paying any more than a phone bill. They could begin with 50 hours free on AOL, switch to three months free with Virgin, and so on. They could also maintain the same email address throughout by registering with another provider that offers free email.
Until now those Internet Service Providers (ISPs ) that stayed out of the freebie market and concentrated on talking up their "superior customer support" maintained that there was room for everyone; that a wide choice was good for consumers. But now there are signs of discontent. In his exclusive interview with Internet World, Netcom managing director Dave Clarke (page 30) reveals that after nine months in the consumer market his company is switching to concentrate solely on the business market.
He blames the likes of AOL, Virgin and MSN for this need to change tack.
A year ago, many predicted the ISP market would consolidate and slim down from the 120 plus companies involved. There is evidence that this is happening, but it would also appear that larger players are buying subscribers to dominate the market. In the long term this could seriously limit the range of choice. In the short term subscribers get very cheap connection to the Net and very attractive offers. It could also escalate to the point where you are offered completely free connection on the condition that you give the ISP a wide range of information about yourself and your buying habits, and agree to take advertising as part of your connection.
After all, it is the tacit agreement that you watch the adverts that fund independent TV. One thing is for sure. Connection is getting cheaper, and that can only be good for rolling out the Net to a wider base.
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