With more and more companies turning to the Internet to solve business problems, local ISP (Internet Service Provider) LinkAGE Online is focusing on how to meet their needs, while avoiding the mass market. Chief executive Chin Man said that with over 90 ISPs in Hong Kong the mass dial-up market was too competitive. Instead, LinkAGE focused on providing business solutions for companies. To this extent, the company has been quite successful, with a market-leading 30 per cent of all the leased lines in Hong Kong. LinkAGE estimates its nearest rival has only about 10 per cent. With so much competition, the company is constantly trying to find new ways to differentiate itself from its rivals. Mr Man said: 'I believe long-term survival depends on how much added value you can provide. That means new applications and new ways to use the network.' In terms of helping its clients, this meant developing business-to-business communications. One area Mr Man is particularly interested in is EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). That is the electronic exchange of documents between different companies or government bodies. He believes this is an exciting new area, with lots of possibilities. He said: 'Business-to-business transactions are the key. If we can do that, customers can justify using our network.' Meanwhile, the company, which was set up three years ago, is still expanding its share of the Hong Kong market. Mr Man said the local market was so big the company did not see any point in expanding overseas. Instead, to ensure its clients had internet access elsewhere in the region, LinkAGE worked with partners in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan. Unfortunately, in Singapore, where there are only three ISPs, the company believes the lack of choice discourages the local firms from offering any added value, which Mr Man looks for in a partner. However, the wealth of choice in Hong Kong was no guarantee companies would offer anything above the most basic of service. Mr Man said that, by competing for the mass market, his competition was forced to compete on price, which made it hard to survive. About 18 months ago, LinkAGE bought Cyberway, another local ISP, in a deal that was thought to signal a long- awaited consolidation of the local ISP market. However, Mr Man said the reason for the acquisition was that Cyberway had some skilled personnel and, since then, the company had met with several other smaller ISPs looking to sell. He said these smaller companies did not offer any added value, so the only purpose in buying them would be to gain their clientele. But with only three or four leased lines, it was not worth the cost, as they could pick up that much new business in a week. 'If they have less than 20 to 30 leased- line clients, then there is no point.' He predicted other large ISPs would have the same reasons for not buying them. This, in turn, could force smaller ISPs to merge.