I think that presenting ourselves as the cheapest ISP, and committing to actually being that, is not necessarily the best strategy. Firstly, we cannot always win on that front: there will always be a competitor offering a short-term deal below cost. People do switch ISPs for those cheap first 6 months! Secondly, as sector commodification deepens, price differences shrink. TFN's price advantage is continuously eroding. So, TFN's existence, at least from the perspective of paying members, cannot be justified by a purely financial argument.
But there are criteria beyond price, when choosing an ISP:
Some people want control. At TFN, they get a say over ISP policies, even prices, through their vote at TFN's AGM. They are empowered, through choosing the TFN projects towards which they direct their volunteer time, to push forward those features which matter to them. They can make certain that a job is done right, either because it was done by an individual whom they personally know and trust or, if necessary, because they volunteered to get it done right themselves.
This is the enlightened self-interest argument. The "we won't hijack your DNS, like Rogers" and "we won't sell your webspace to Geocities (like Rogers)" argument. Because we are accountable. Because you have a say or a hand in what we do. Because you are a member.
TFN provides fulfilling tasks plus a space for underutilized techies to play and to learn the communication technologies of the day. Their efforts benefit people whom a commercial call centre (which must follow a script and watch the clock) cannot adequately support. More specifically:
Benefits to volunteers: Young techies may need some experience in order to land their first job. Techies in their prime, while between jobs, may need a way to keep their skills sharp. Retired techies may want a challenge in which to find new purpose, to redefine themselves. TFN's technical infrastructure is a focal point around which all these people can meet, fulfil each other's needs, and find camaraderie and friendship.
Benefits to service users: Barriers come in many forms. TFN provides a home for those who cannot get access on their own terms from commercial providers. Sometimes, this is because these users depend on older equipment, like serial terminals or computer operating systems that lack a TCP/IP + PPP stack. Other times, it is because they use non-mainstream operating systems, like GNU/Linux. For other members, their minds just do not interface with commercial tech support: they ask a question, are unable to process the answer they are given, and the commercial workers give up on them or become abusive. Finally, a few people can afford no more than $0.00, and TFN's Basic access level with its 25 free minutes a day is their only lifeline at home.
Commercial organizations lack the financial motivation to spend time and money teaching unprofitable things to customers. Such as:
Take webspace for example. Space in which to publish your own web pages used to be included in the basic service of all ISPs. This is slowly changing. Some ISPs now want you to rent webspace separately, either from them or from a third party, or they tell you to use a "free" webspace offering from a third party, who will push advertisements along with your pages.
Usenet is another example. It used to be the heart of online debate. It is an effective communication medium. It is efficient. It is distributed (no central control). But it is a textual, not a graphical medium.
Rogers and others have already dropped it. The rest avoid mentioning it. They apparently hope that, with continued neglect, demand will drop, making it easier to eliminate Usenet. Their hope is justified: almost all people who first got Internet access from a mainstream ISP after the year 2000 have not heard of Usenet. They instead frequent Yahoo groups and social networking sites. All of which are centrally controlled and, though they have their strong points, they aren't suited to all types of communication.
The unspoken truth is that all ISPs want the Usenet losers to go buy a feed from Giganews. This is because Usenet puts the weight on the ISP rather than on the last mile of wire to your home. On the other hand, services like YouTube entice the consumer to pay more — to upgrade from 5 to 7 Mbps, from x to x+1 gigabytes per month. Commercial ISPs are what they are. One cannot blame them for looking after their shareholders' interests and promoting YouTube, not Usenet.
Nor do commercial ISPs aspire to serve, gratis, the websites of all the city's non-profit organizations (TFN's marketing refers to them as "information providers").
Unlike other providers which are, by their commercial nature, required to pursue profit and to charge as high a price as the market will bear, TFNs prices cover its costs. This won't change, because TFN is non-profit.
Commercial providers sometimes lower their prices, for a while, in order to push competitors aside — to gain a monopoly. During that time, they can appear more attractive, even than a non-profit. But, if they succeed in eliminating all competitors, they are then free to set their prices higher than the market would otherwise have allowed. The continued existence of competitors, especially non-profit ones like TFN, protects all Torontonians, not just TFN members, from that possibility.
Contrarily, if TFN were to gain a monopoly (imagine that!), it could not jack up its prices because TFN's members, who are also the users of TFN's services, would vote against such a move. That isn't an option when one is just a company's customer!
I think that we should be doing everything that commercial ISPs don't because they see no easy profit in it. We should pursue fringe markets. We should provide non-mainstream features. We should encourage members to use our full range of services, so that they will know and value them, when they compare TFN to competitors.
Note that I am not saying that TFN should shun mainstream users. I am only saying that I think that it is a mistake to focus our hopes on winning in the mainstream market, which is well served by commercial ISPs. Even if it were feasible, I think that TFN's survival would be pointless if we just imitated the mainstream ISPs and limited our offerings to the most profitable ones.
I see TFN branding itself with its non-mainstream, curmudgeonly distinctiveness. Not as a price-competitive choice amongst other ISPs, but as an alternative option for those wanting a different environment and for those wanting to support and be part of TFN's mission, even though another ISP may have sufficed for their particular needs. And, yeah, the service should be cheap too. But I think that we should not make that the core of our identity.
next: What needs doing
Copyright (C) 2009 Iain Calder. All rights reserved.