Here we have a bunch of companies built around a model of selling space on big pipes of data. That's all it is: bandwidth. You can't pick it up, you can't put it to one side to play with later or save it for a rainy day. You can pay for it, however, and apparently you can steal it, but really it's all a bit intangible. Which makes it hard to sell.
Sure, people want it, but it's hard to differentiate your bandwidth from your biggest competitor's. It all feels and sounds and tastes the same. Hence the service bit - because you don't just buy bandwidth. You buy so much more than that: you become a member of a family, a trusted member with rights and feelings and in need of warmth and love.
Yeah, right. If the helpdesk staff aren't scoffing at you for losing your log-in name (true story), they're cutting you off because the billing department hasn't let them know you paid, or they're letting someone spam you or they're overcharging you or they're underresourcing you or they're letting 150,000 unpatched servers nail your electronic ass to the wall every five minutes.
So what's to be done? ISPs are desperate for your business. Users are desperate for some remedies to their problems ... Hmmm ... I have an idea, but it's a radical one. Some of you may have thought it yourselves in dark moments of despair - when the fever grips you and your demons gather about you. Why don't ISPs offer services above and beyond the simple provision of bandwidth? Why don't they, for example, offer to filter spam or worms or provide a minimum connection speed for a set amount of money?
Just think - this could be a new model for ISPs. They could increase their user bases without upsetting existing customers by buying more bandwidth to on-sell. Is it just me or is this an idea whose time has come?
OK, all sarcasm aside, ISPs will probably say they do just this already. XtraMSN has a host of services including news and information, entertainment and so on at the country's largest website. Ihug has just announced it will offer a security package similar to what I've outlined above and all the ISPs have advice on security and privacy and chat rooms and download sections and so on.
So why is it that one of the most common themes in my inbox is "My ISP treats me like something it scraped off the bottom of its shoe" and runs to many pages of unpleasantness, anger, hostility and lack of service.
I know helpdesk folk have a fairly crappy job. I've seen the humorous emails about the sorts of things they're asked - well here's news for you: you're a helpdesk. You're supposed to answer questions. That's what you're for, get used to it.
And I know ISPs make their money by buying bandwidth and selling it for a mark-up. But I've had emails from Palmerston North about ISPs selling bandwidth that simply isn't there or trying to run servers at 300% of their maximum capacity. If you spend money on an advertising campaign to bring in customers, you have to be able to provision them or why bother even getting out of bed in the mornings? It's not a difficult concept, yet it seems to be something ISPs around the country struggle with.
Am I wrong? Are you all sitting there desperately wishing you could block spam and filter viruses and ready to throw the switch marked "bandwidth for Africa"? What's holding you back? Premium services are something people are willing to pay for - guaranteed speeds, guaranteed clean email. This isn't a niche, it's the market as we know it.