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Broadband leaders

The two most common complaints I hear from IFAs about online services are that they are slow and phone charges can make them expensive. Both are valid criticisms.

It is not without reason that all too often the internet is referred to as the World Wide Wait.

Equally, the historical practice of charging for local telephone calls by the minute rather than as a flat fee or within the fixed costs of having a phone, as is the case in so many other parts of the world, has been a major constraint on the use of the internet in the UK.

The growth of internet use in the UK can be directly related to the removal of price barriers. An early example, probably so early that few internet users would remember it, would be Microsoft&#39s decision to make the Internet Explorer software a free distribution component.

Prior to this, users were expected to pay licence fees for Net scape&#39s browser product or make do with the Mosaic browser that came with early versions of CompuServe and some other services.

Offering the browser free of charge cut the cost of getting online by about £80 over night and made it possible for literally hundreds of small firms to start offering internet access for as little as £10 a month.

The next major explosion in UK internet usage came with the launch of Freeserve, which single-handedly demon strated to the UK internet community that connection to dial-up access via a modem was no longer something that they needed to pay for.

Within less than a year, virtually all internet access was being offered free of charge.

Despite access to the internet being metered, users still had to pay by the minute for calls and invariably this has been the biggest single cost of access. At last, this is changing.

Just after Christ mas, Oftel announced that it had finalised negotiations with BT to provide competitors with fixed-price access to the so-called local loop, the actual connection between telephone exch anges and individual addresses.

Last year, there were several abortive attempts by internet service providers and other telecom companies to introduce fixed-cost internet access, including call charges.

However, as long as these organisations still had to pay by-the-minute charges to BT for providing the access, many such services rapidly became a financial black hole for those trying to operate them and nearly all closed.

The conclusion of the Oftel/BT deal now makes such services viable for a whole range of alternative providers.

Already, an increasing number of alternative telephone providers are offering fixed-price modem-based in ternet access for as little as £10 a month As I said at the beginning, cost alone is not the only issue, finally the long wait for high-speed internet access in the UK is coming to an end, at least in the major urban conurbations.

For several years, ISDN circuits have offered users access at double the conventional modem speed. In reality, this is only a modest improvement. Costs are char ged per call and it can be expensive. Such services use two linked digital lines. If the rate at which data drawn down or sent to the internet exceeded the basic capacity of the first line a second line kicked in to double the speed at which data was transferred.

Many users failed to recognise that each time the second line kicks in, this is charged as a separate call. If it drop s in and out six times in a minute, users could end up paying for six minutes of calls in one minute.

With the launch of ADSL and other so-called broadband services, it is now possible for users to access the internet on permanently open connections which can be 10 or even 40 times faster than conventional modems at fixed costs.

Most of the current services will deliver information to you from the internet faster than they will allow you to send it.

For example, the basic business broadband service from BT allows information to come (known as downstream) to you at 512kbps but only sends it back (upstream) at 256kbps. This costs £150 to install with a quarterly charge of £299.97. Alter natively, Telewest is offering its Blue Yonder service, pulling information downstream at the same 512kbps but sending it back at only 128kbps for an installation fee of £295 and a monthly fee of £125.

There are some potential additional security risks that people should understand however, and personally I am concerned that the telecoms industry is not doing enough to make this clear to users.

With a conventional dial-up connection, each time you go online, your internet service provider creates a temporary address, known as an internet protocol address, for your computer. This is the address to which information is return ed when requested via your browser. With a dial-up connection, a new IP address is allocated each time you log on. This is often referred to as using a dynamic IP address.

If you are keeping the duration of your call down because of call charges, the risk of hackers identifying your IP address and attacking your computer are limited. Being connected for an extended period increases the risk. Some broadband services allocate users a permanent address. Although there can be some business benefits to this, it does mean you are far more exposed to hackers. If you are going to have a permanent or long-term connection to the internet it is important to put a firewall in place.

I recently tried out a product designed to meet this need for small businesses. Norton&#39s Internet Security combines a personal firewall product with the latest version of its market-leading Anti-Virus software.

It certainly protected me against hackers. Unfortu nately, of the two machines I tried it on, one became invis ible to our local area network and one could suddenly no longer use my standard internet dial-up.

Technical support at Nor ton has been unable to help me resolve these issues (and were frankly rather uninterested) and it now looks like the only way I can solve the problem is to have the mach ines reformatted and all software reinstalled from scratch, which will still not solve my firewall issue.

Needless to say, this is not a product I can recommend at this time, al though I am continuing to look at this issue and will return to it in a future column.

High-speed fixed-cost in ternet services have a great deal to offer the financial services sector and can really help the IFA community in two-way communication with clients.

None of the broadband service providers is currently offering packages which provide the security firewall for the user alth ough this is an obvious way to go and a number are examining this possibility.

There is likely to be high demand for these services as they roll out over the next few months and it will be interesting to see if in creased competition drives down costs.

However, when choosing a broadband supplier it will be important to look at the extent of back-up services, such as firewalls rather than just basic costs.

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