Big ain't necessarily better - that's the conclusion of Consumer magazine's ISP shootout, which found Auckland's Internet Prolink to be the city's best in terms of price, performance and support - but had some harsh words for Xtra and IBM.
The survey, which should go some way towards settling the perennial arguments about ISP performance, is described by Consumer Institute head David Russell as part of a long-term commitment to surveying standards of service in the Internet industry.
Tests were conducted late last year. They covered file transfer at various times of day and Iprolink was the only ISP in the country to consistently transfer a 275Kb file in less than a minute. Xtra and IBM were considerably slower, but achieved nothing as gruesome as the 41 minutes clocked up by Efficient Software, which has now been, mercifully, merged with Ihug.
ES was also the worst performer on dial-up availability, followed by Xtra (which was tested from its Wellington POP) and the Auckland Internet Exchange.
Xtra did get high marks for ease of joining and its phone support was found to be good. The best support was provided by Iprolink and Iconz, and the worst by IBM and Netlink, who "performed poorly and were difficult to contact".
Significantly, Consumer said that it found little evidence to support the belief that flat-rate charging equated to poor service quality. It found Ihug offered cheap flat and time rates "across the board".
The survey goes into some detail, but Consumer named Iprolink as best ISP in Auckland, Ihug and Planet FreeNZ as joint best in other main centres and Voyager as the best nationwide provider.
Russell says the survey found that "it wasn't necessarily the big ones or the ones who show up the most who are the best - but this is something that our independent surveys have shown over the years. It's not necessarily the one who's got the biggest advertising budget or the slickest presentation that is going to come out the best.
"I believe that's the strength of the institute - that we're complete removed from the business of things and are looking at services dispassionately and making direct comparisons."
He says the survey was no more difficult in essence than most of the institute's projects - although it was undertaken partly in response to a perception that consumers themselves were confused about choices.
"One of our researchers had an interest in the area, which got us away to a flying start. And we just followed it through, using the methodology we would use for any other survey of a service. That means we go out, we talk to people, we talk to the industry - and when the work's done they get the opportunity to comment on it.
"We didn't conduct a formal survey to assess the size of the demand for the survey, but there was demand. Anecdotally we were hearing stories of people being confused and wanting more information and analysis."
Russell says the institute is gearing up to focus more on the online world
"We would like to keep this survey up to date for a start. It's an ever-changing area. There are going to be new people in, others dropping out and the ratings are going to change. We want to keep it up to date and we're discussing how best to do that right now."
He also acknowledges that the Internet is likely to prove increasingly fertile ground for scams and swindles similar to those his organisations deals with in the real world.
"We haven't reported on anything in that area yet, but it is a very important one. And it is interesting that the Minister of Consumer Affairs has already looked at the commerce that is going to develop over the Net, and particularly inter-country commerce. How do you control the crook in the US who sells something bum to the poor bunny in New Zealand? Or the other way around? So that is a growing consumer concern and something that we'll be addressing in the future."
So ... when can we expect the see the Consumer Institute Website?
"We have a proposal out at present. Let me be optimistic - between six weeks and two months."