Supporting customers is what Internet service providers hate most about their job, according to a Microsoft survey. The survey found almost 400 UK companies whose primary business services are Internet access and Web hosting, while a further 2,000 businesses claim to offer Internet services. The survey questioned 130 ISPs, who met with Microsoft for a one-day seminar last week. In the survey, 95% listed coping with downtime as a major headache, and almost half said keeping up with new technology is one of the worst things about being an ISP. More than 90% of the dedicated companies questioned claimed to be making a profit. The other 6% expect to become profitable within the next six-to-12 months. The consumer market is seen as a huge area of opportunity. All small ISPs offer dial-up access services and the average number of dial-up subscribers per operator is just over 3,000. Because Internet access is a very low margin service, the crucial decision for ISPs is which add on services it should provide. The most commonly offered add-ons are virtual private networks and hosted database services. Almost half offer Ecommerce or firewall solutions. Petra Gartzen, a Dataquest analyst, commented: "These add-on markets are difficult to get into for smaller players but a lot have local support. They see themselves as partners to local business." Simon Hansford, managing director of Connect 2 Internet, argued that anybody who sticks to a particular geographical area will miss out on volume. "Smaller ISPs should focus more heavily on the consumer market," he said. "The future is uncertain so the challenge is to align yourself to a growing area." Adrian Smith, a senior analyst at Romtec, predicts a substantial consolidation within the industry. "There will undoubtedly be mergers and closures as well as more start-ups and partnerships between providers and vendors and resellers will increase as providers want to develop more sophisticated services," he said. OTHER SURVEY FINDINGS - Sun servers are the most popular for dedicated Web hosting and virtual Web hosting. - One third of ISPs build their own servers for dedicated hosting, and 49% for virtual hosting. - Platforms are split evenly between Unix and NT. - Most ISPs use the Sendmail Email server; Microsoft Exchange is next, used by 46% of companies.
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