Perth ISP leaves customers hanging

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One Perth-based ISP has disappeared off the map, leaving its customers in the lurch.

Customers said that the ISP, trading as Web Advance, was last contactable in early December but the website had been down, with emails bouncing back and phone calls going unanswered for more than six weeks.

Amanda Salisbury, a freelance photographer based in Brisbane, said she believed her Web Advance-hosted business website -- www.imagesbyamanda.net -- had been down since early December.

“As far as I am aware it has been at least two weeks [before 15 December] since I was able to access my website,” she said. “I can no longer find their home website or contact them by phone.”

Her domain name provider -- www.webdomains.com.au -- also no longer existed, she said, although she could get to what looked like a support and payments page.

“I suspect it is a US page with the Aussie logo plastered on top,” Salisbury added. “All links on this work except to WebDomains homepage. What does it all mean?”
 
Salisbury last heard from Web Advance in October, when they sent her latest monthly invoice. She had also received a newsletter and an outage notice on 25 September -- neither of which provided any clue to the ISP's December disappearance.

The newsletter did claim that Web Advance was “very busy working to improve and automate” its system, scheduling “attention over the next six weeks” to new traffic reports, custom error pages and custom component registration.

The backend had 'nearly' completed a re-code and most operations including ordering, hosting creation, accounts and email accounts had been automated. A tie-in to the payments system was scheduled for completion in December and the company was also re-locating to a new data centre, it said.

Cheque payments could not be made out to Web Advance, the newsletter said.

Salisbury confirmed that cheques had to be made out to a CM Young. However, the newsletter was signed by 'Dave', Web Advance's director.

Web Advance and WebDomains are listed with the Australian Business Register as the trading names of a co-operative in the name of one David Scrimshaw.

No D Scrimshaw, WebDomains or Web Advance is listed in the Perth directory, and both phone numbers listed on the Web Advance website were disconnected mid-December. Emails to any of three addresses provided to customers bounce back with permanent errors.

Martin Quinlan, a South Perth-based kinesthiologist and Reiki master, said he also had “the misfortune” to be a customer of Web Advance.

“They did just disappear off the map and left me in the lurch as well. I had to move my site in a hurry, and after just paying for another year,” he said. “To make things worse I am still getting auto-reminders now for my wife's site asking for money for things that they are not providing!”

Quinlan had previously been a customer of WebCentral's but wanted a cheaper option. Web Advance had performed “quite well” at first and Quinlan's wife had switched to Web Advance as well but the Perth ISP had been “up and down a bit”, he said.
 
“Then in [September] we got an [outage] notice,” he said. A 25 September notice, sighted by CRN, said Web Advance would be down for 48 hours from 9am 27 September while the network was re-located.

“They went down for about a week and there was all sorts of vague promises made, 'we'll give you all a month free' and things like that,” and, we said “well, OK, but you should be more reliable”,” Quinlan said.

Then, he started noticing that his website had gone down. “I only looked at my site about once or twice a day. But it had been down for six days and two hours on 15 December,” he said.

Emailed inquiries bounced back, so Quinlan had started trying to telephone the ISP -- with no success.

Quinlan decided to move his website in mid-December “once I realised he [Scrimshaw] wasn't answering phones or anything”.

“I think I had about another year from them -- maybe nearly $100, $80 or $90 most likely, and my wife had just paid another $50 for email access and I'm pretty annoyed,” Quinlan said. “If you end up with an address or something and want anything sent to him or hand-delivered, feel free to communicate with me.”

Azizi Khan, principal consultant at new Sydney IT consultancy Anaxiz International Group Co-op, said he had been a Web Advance customer for about 12 months but also had been unable to get service from them since before Christmas.

“They used to have an 1800 number, and that has been disconnected as well. The other way to get them was through their website and everything has been disabled although the DNS is still active,” Khan said.

He said he had previously bought a new server so had found it relatively easy to log into the DNS and point his service at a new server. “I was pretty lucky,” he said.

Web Advance's service had seemed reasonably reliable until mid-December and had proved attractive because it offered affordable SQL Server hosting. “I only had two experiences where they had gone down for more than a day and always expected it had more to do with Telstra than anything else,” Khan said.

“The only thing is, if you are a professional, you would expect a back-up service. Yet when they went down, it all went down. So that was a bit fishy,” he added.

Khan said he had tracked down the service provider hosting Web Advance, who had assured him that everything was fine -- the websites had not gone down for any reason.

“That seemed weird, because if they had already paid for the service why don't they use it?” he asked.

CRN contacted the host Khan suggested for more information but it said it was not permitted to confirm whether Web Advance was still a customer.

Mike Winchester, a spokesperson for Western Australia's Department of Fair Trading, said no complaints had been filed about Web Advance, director David Scrimshaw or WebDomains.

“We get about 1,200 calls a day and we've got a facility to search through the companies by what they do and 'internet' and 'computing' are always coming up a lot,” he said.

However, Fair Trading would look into it now it had been alerted to the situation, Winchester said.

Geoff Johnson, an analyst at research firm Gartner, said few figures were available on small ISPs and their survival rates or business trajectory as it was the big ones that attracted the interest of Gartner's paying clients.

“There are some figures suggesting there are 700 to 1,100 [small ISPs in Australia still] but we don't know because commercially its not worth following the small ones,” he said.

However, the industry was maturing but that hadn't seemed to totally stop the fly-by-nighters, he added, and many had closed down quite quickly due to price pressures.

“Lots of those little ones have closed down,” Johnson said. “2004 will be a critical year for [many] ISPs.”

Gartner research had shown that ISP business models would have to focus on capacity and usability rather than innovation. Meanwhile, prices would continue to drop, making competition more difficult, Johnson said.

Multiple attempts to contact Web Advance had failed at time of going to press.

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