The Australian Communications Authority (ACA) has urged ISPs to commit to standardised guidelines to make it easier for users to compare Internet services. The request follows a new study by the group which cited the choice of provider and volumes of information available on services as the most overwhelming factors for small businesses selecting an Internet offering.
Based on information from more than 500 companies in Australia, the research found the number one issue for those looking for an Internet service was wading through the hundreds of plans on offer.
Other issues raised by respondents included the unavailability of broadband, service dropouts and slow download rates on dial-up.
ACA acting manager of consumer interests, Michael Owens, said it was important small businesses recognised the cheapest product was not necessarily the best.
"The bottom line for small businesses is dollars," he said.
The uniform guidelines published by the ACA were an attempt at telling them what service they were paying for.
"We are using our guidelines to get all ISPs to put information in the same place," Owens said.
However, Primus general manager, Campbell Sallabank, said a big stick approach would be overkill.
"But we certainly see the need in both small business and consumer plans to improve the simplicity of services," he said. "It's a schemozzle out there.
"Rather than have it regulated though, I think it's more of a market opportunity for players who can deliver that."
Pacific Internet managing director, Dennis Muscat, said there were major variations in the way ISPs delivered information to users. But while supportive of the Authority's push to standardise information given out by ISPs, he was doubtful the measure made it easier to decide which provider to go with.
"The standardised documents in themselves are a challenge to get through," he said.
Instead, the key for ISPs was to illustrate the differences between residential and business grade services, he said.
"The main difference comes down to the grade of service you can expect," Muscat said. "The key with a business product is that you know you are being supported as a business.
"Business customers use more applications, such as voice or software," he said. "They are going down a different path to residential users, who use more services, such as gaming.
"The industry hasn't been clear on the $40 versus $60 a month plans. But there are two areas that businesses should be focused on: support, and redundancy or failover plans."
Yet small businesses continued to be swayed by the lower price points offered with residential services, Muscat said.
According to Pacific Internet's most recent broadband barometer report, 40 per cent of small businesses were using consumer-targeted broadband offerings.
For Sallabank, the improvement to service quality across the whole range of Internet services now available saw many small businesses happy to stick with standard consumer products.
"It is difficult for ISPs to charge more for business-grade services," he said. "Provisioning things like virtual private networks are where the business-specific services come into it."
Adding to this statement, Owens said the ACA had found small businesses were not overly concerned about performance monitoring.
"Those surveyed wanted service quality, but when we talked about monitoring, or how well the service was being provided by the ISP, they weren't interested," he said. "It seems that as long as small businesses are getting the service, they are happy with their provider."
Owens said a recent survey undertaken by the ACA on Internet and telecoms services found more than 80 per cent of respondents were satisfied with their Internet access.
This was higher than the rate recorded for either mobile or fixed line services, he said.