ISPs Can’t Get No Respect

If 11,000 people get together and no one covers it, do they make a sound?

Well, they don’t in the computer press. But maybe they should. That’s how I felt as I took off from the ISPCON show in Orlando yesterday.

Analysts have spent the last five years claiming this business is about to consolidate into a half-dozen carriers, but the number of U.S. ISPs keeps climbing. There are about 7,500 now, and judging by what I heard in Orlando, their future seems unlimited.

In his Thursday keynote, John Davies, Intel’s vice president for e-business marketing, said the computer industry market will be worth $8 trillion by 2012. Thirty-nine percent of that will go to Internet service providers.

It’s true that to earn that money, ISPs will have to grow and change, but 39 percent of $8 trillion (up from $800 billion in total computer industry revenues in 1998, Davies said) doesn’t sound like a business that’s about to consolidate. The exhibit floors in Orlando had new ISPs that specialized in providing backbone services, ISPs in web hosting, and ISPs providing commerce services (commerce service providers).

The big news at this show was the move by ISPs to host other applications, becoming application service providers. So many people are claiming to be ASPs, and folks are complaining they don’t know what one is.

With all the opportunities at this show, it will become harder and harder to figure out what an ISP is, although that’s how it all starts. A distributor was offering to help turn ISPs into telephone companies including help with the business plans, state tariff notices, and negotiations with Bell companies. Another outfit was offering to turn ISPs into cable companies. Put a dish on the roof, resell his feed of networks, and voila! Let’s rent a barn and build a studio.

When outfits like Microsoft, 3Com, Cisco, IBM, Lucent, Intel and Novell are buying big booths, hiring magicians and jugglers to entertain, then renting out the Universal Studios theme park or booking Foreigner or Kool and the Gang for a free rock concert, you can be fairly sure some business is being done.

One morning, I even met Buzz Aldrin at a new vendor’s booth, where he was signing autographs. I gave him my business card. He seemed happy to see me and excited over what was going on around him.

But you couldn’t tell this in the press room. Over 100 “reporters” showed up. Some were analysts. Others were PR people. Still others were vendors in disguise. Most of the remaining were for Penton, which put on the show. I went to two press conferences where I was the only reporter in attendance.

To be fair, this is a business where the big are getting bigger. But the small and medium-sized are also getting bigger, and many are getting bigger faster than the big guys. Smaller ISPs seem to move faster. They actually care about customers, and if you have a real problem, you can reach the boss. In a fast-changing, fast-growing business, it makes sense that you’d want to reach the people you’re dealing with, not their bureaucrats and minions. That’s the way this business is.

Remember this when next you open your standard industry trade. The press looks for glitz, flash, and “experts” who are paid by big companies to repeat what’s already “known.” Stay skeptical. Demand evidence. Make your own judgments.

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