Internet gets big boost by 'accident'
By LARRY CAMPBELL
IF the past year saw momentous changes in the telecommunications industry, it saw some phenomenal growth in one area that even caught Hongkong Telecom off-guard.
Mirroring trends in the United States and Europe, use of the Internet and other on-line services have boomed this year. Internet useage alone went from an estimated 5,000 commercial users at the beginning of the year to more than 20,000 today. And that figure is growing daily.
Although long lambasted for its policies - or the lack thereof - towards the Internet, the Government played a crucial role in nurturing growth in the industry, albeit in a roundabout fashion.
On March 3, when the Commercial Crimes Bureau (CCB) raided the offices of seven Internet service providers (ISPs) and shut them down for operating without the relevant licence, thousands of Internet users were left high and dry, their connections to the global network of networks unceremoniously severed.
In the weeks following, the CCB and the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) came under fire from the the international Internet community, the press and even the Legislative Council for sticking their fingers in a pie they had little knowledge about. Headlines to the effect that the Government had effectively set back Internet growth by several years were common. But, as it turned out, they were groundless.
If anything, the publicity generated by the Government action brought the Internet to the attention of thousands of people in Hong Kong who would otherwise never have heard about it. And many of them rushed to get on the 'information superhighway', believing much of the hype generated by ISPs, among others, about the potential for doing business on-line.
The growth in the number of ISPs in Hong Kong is a reflection of the growth of the overall industry in the territory. In March, eight ISPs were doing business, only one of which was 'legal', according to OFTA, because it held a Public Non-exclusive Telecommunications Service (PNETS) licence.
At last count, about a week ago, 40 companies were registered with OFTA to provide access to the Internet, a growth that outstrips that of actual Internet useage expansion in Hong Kong.
When it regulated the Internet industry, OFTA said licensing was necessary to ensure that ISPs did not run cowboy operations, were accountable for the services provided and could be controlled. To-date, OFTA has been coming in for considerable criticism for not making up its mind on tariffs payable by ISPs to Hongkong Telecom, so much so that, last week, one ISP publicly refused to pay any more PNETS fees.
OFTA has promised to rule on the issue this week, a promise made personally by the Director-General of Telecommunications, Alex Arena.
In addition to dealing with tariff-related issues, OFTA has, in recent weeks, been called on to keep its word and ensure that consumers are protected against unscrupulous ISPs. Last month, the Consumer Council issued a report in which it warned potential Internet users to beware of the pitfalls of dealing with some ISPs in the territory.
Of the 26 ISPs surveyed, it discovered half did not include tariffs payable to Hongkong Telecom in their published charges and, in some cases, failed to inform new users of these extra charges until after they had signed up with the service.
The council also warned users not to expect too much in the way of professional customer support from ISPs, many of whom were found to be unable to solve technical problems - if they answered their telephones in the first place, that is.
It also warned about slow connections through some ISPs piggy-backing through bigger services and, in some cases, the inability to get connected because of a shortage of telephone lines.
Its advice to Internet users: always use the free trial periods offered by some ISPs before committing to a one-service provider.
Following the Consumer Council report, Mr Arena called on Internet users dissatisfied with the services of their ISPs to complain to him in writing so investigations could be carried out and action taken.
According to an OFTA spokesman, the authority had received more than 60 complaints since Friday alone, most of them about poor ISP customer support and bad line quality.
OFTA has not said how it plans to tackle these complaints.
In the meantime, the Internet community continues to boom, with a large number of companies turning to the World-Wide Web as a new advertising media. Firms such as Jardine Fleming Unit Trusts, Visa, MasterCard, Cathay Pacific and other big names in local business have moved on to the Web in the hope of being able to reach a new audience - and prepare themselves for the advent of on-line commerce.
While all this is happening, there appears to be no sign of the ISP industry in Hong Kong slowing down. This week alone saw the launch of two new ISPs, plus announcements by several others of huge additions to their services and features.
On-line commerce, already taking off despite the lack of adequate security measures on the Internet, will grow further, the Web will be used for more on-line publicity and, if the experts are to be believed, Internet useage figures will double in the first six months of 1996 alone.
In the meantime, with any luck, the various government departments involved in examining Internet issues - from tariffs to pornography - will pull their collective socks up and begin learning a bit more about an industry that the rest of Hong Kong just cannot seem to get enough of.