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AOL was something of a pioneer as an ISP, handing out its CDs in supermarkets and shopping centres, with magazines and any way it could to persuade people to sign up for its internet service. And many people did. Indeed, it did give many people their first experience of the internet, supporting a dial-up service through banks of modems and customer service that helped users get started.

Times have now changed and the rise of consumer preference and web experience put an end to its unique service. Many other companies have entered the market and AOL's UK business has been owned by The Carphone Warehouse since 2006. Since the company also owns Talk Talk Broadband and the more recently acquired Tiscali, it is now the UK's third largest broadband provider with over four million subscribers in 2009.

The AOL Broadband website at www.aolbroadband.co.uk has the usual range of broadband offers with the general ploy being to set a reduced rate for the first three months and then go up to the full price. Each package varies in content, with only some of them having a set-up fee. In fact, the broadband content of each package seems pretty much the same, with the same download speed and a router provided for wireless broadband. AOL reckons it was the first ISP to provide a wireless router as standard with its broadband packages.

The main difference in the available packages is the phone content, with the extent of free calls varying depending on what you pay. If you really only want broadband, you will pay extra to ditch the phone element of the package. Given the ownership of the brand, it's perhaps not surprising there is a certain emphasis on the phone service.

One almost unique feature of AOL internet is that some of the packages require only a one-month contract, which means you're avoiding the long-term commitment that most suppliers demand. As one of the first companies into the market, AOL has tended to be an innovator and did offer the choice of a free PS3 or laptop as part of a broadband package. Needless to say, this did demand a higher level of commitment, with a 24-month contract as part of the deal. Many providers have now followed suit and laptops and games consoles are frequently seen as incentives to sign with any particular broad band company.

The site does boast of award winning support, which includes it being voted number one for customer service, technical service and quality of connection in a Broadband Customer Satisfaction survey conducted by YouGov. However, this isn't recent since O2 rather swept the board in 2009 and AOL languished some way behind in most categories.

It does offer online help and a technical support phone service that can be contacted free providing you have the AOL phone package. But many of the customer reviews do complain about poor customer service, partly due to the call centre being based in "India", with long periods on hold and communication difficulties. This is despite a set of listed principles that state the importance of the customer to the company. The broadband service itself has better comments, apart from some reported loss of system availability at times caused by system upgrades during peak times which, if true, seems a little out of order.

The main attraction of AOL is price, which is cheap for a broadband and phone package even after the introductory period. One might have serious concerns about the many negative reviews and a suspicion that the emphasis is more on phones than the broadband service. Nevertheless, choosing a package with a one-month contract will provide a reasonable get out, despite the hassle of having to change again if it doesn't work out. However, this does give the impression of a market leader that's fallen down the pecking order. †



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