AAISP – the unfiltered network
Most internet service providers are quite typical. They offer phone and broadband products and have lacklustre callcentre support systems that are so ubiquitous, they’ve been the punchline of every comedian’s closing bit for a decade; but that’s not the case with every ISP. Recently we sat down with Andrews & Arnold or AAISP, which offers not only various broadband packages and technically knowledgeable support staff, but photography, engraving and 3D printing services.
This is not your average service provider.
A technical service
Initially researched as part of an ISP stand off piece we were working on, AAISP came to our attention for being the most highly rated service provider on ISPReview. That may surprise you, considering so many of the big-name ISPs we’re all signed to love to tout their ‘award winning’ customer support, or industry standard broadband packages, but none of the UK’s most popular providers even feature in the top 10.
Andrews and Arnold easily dominates most competitors – Source: ISP Review
AAISP however stands apart from even the smaller, well respected ISPs, with a near perfect rating and almost unanimous reviews. So why is it that AAISP is so well loved by its customers?
“Because our staff really understand the product they’re selling,” said AAISP’s business manager, Alex Bloor. “No scripts. We also utilise IRC to allow customers to get in touch with us and other customers. When someone is asking for support with something, they want to know that they have a smart solution and ours is. Our team is very good; much better than other ISPs.”
This could easily sound like grandstanding. A PR man happy to whip up some hype about his company of the month, but Bloor and his fellow executives are not just front sellers. They often get their hands dirty in the support lines too, with even CEO Adrian Kennard often found manning the same lines his equally qualified employees do.
That’s because AAISP is focused on the product, which Bloor says is something other companies have forgotten:
“Most of them, even the ones that started as being technically based, have homogenised and become marketing lead,” he said, somewhat sadly.
AAISP’s owner confirmed a few years ago that the support team is entirely XKCD/806 compliant.
The technical know how is apparent in our conversation. Rarely do ISP support line operators sound like they know what they’re doing, but throughout our call Bloor expounded impressive knowledge of networking and internet connectivity. If this is how knowledgeable the Business Manager is, we have to imagine that the in-line support staff are even more so.
Beyond telephone and online support, the company does a lot to your line that other companies don’t as well.
“When you join Andrew and Arnold, every customer line has an LCP echo and we measure the response time. Every customer has that every second, so we have accurate data on their connection latency,” Bloor continued. “That data is held indefinitely and makes it easier to fix problems. Even weird ones.”
“Did you know turning on cheap Christmas lights can cause issues with a connection? We found that out thanks to our regular line checks showing problems at certain times around Christmas. Sodium streetlights can cause problems too, so we cross reference line quality with the level of light at our customer’s houses and places of work to make sure that isn’t an issue.”
As detailed and beyond the usual call of duty that that is though, it’s not just technical know-how that has made AAISP so beloved.
The “No bulls*** policy
“It’s our no-bulls*** policy,” said Bloor, with a grin you could hear through the phone. “We don’t pass the buck and we don’t bulls*** our customers.”
That said, as with many other ISPs, AAISP does have to deal with BT and TalkTalk and their failings, which is another area fans have praised this company. It is dogged in its pursuit of downed lines and engineering issues, consistently badgering Openreach staff with knowledgeable questions and access to the very people who should be fixing the flaw.
“Mostly it’s because our guys know what they’re talking about, which means they know the right questions to ask,” said Bloor. “Our staff will dogear them too and shout if necessary.”
In many cases I’m told, AAISP has been able to get fix times down from two weeks to just a matter of days.
This doesn’t mean that AAISP is free from criticism itself though and it’s happy to own up to its shortcomings. Surprisingly though, they’re often deliberate. One area its fans say it falls down is in download limits, which max out at 300GB for its standard packages, which are also more expensive than your average ISP.
“When we launched our home user package, we launched it with 50GB inclusive for £25 a month. Most home one users we have do buy at the base 100GB level. For most, 100GB is enough,” said Bloor.
He went on to explain that AAISP doesn’t offer unlimited packages, because nobody really does. All the big ISPs have smallprint that throttles a user after a certain point.So while on the surface AAISP’s packages might seem more limited, the idea is to make them more honest and obvious.
However if the ones available aren’t to your liking, Andrews and Arnold is more than happy to alter them for different customers. There can automatically renew for extended download limits, or be customised to prioritise latency over bandwidth, in some instances cutting a user’s ping in half. They can also be tweaked to allocate a small portion of a customer’s connection for VOIP only, meaning it will always be crystal clear regardless of what else is happening on the line.
Beyond download limits and pricing through, AAISP’s website also takes some criticism for looking old and text heavy. But again, that’s by choice.
“Since our customers are often technically minded themselves, they appreciate having all of the information available to them,” Bloor said.
As a company that isn’t there just to get lots of customers in the front door, it would rather people understood what was being sold from the get go and didn’t get any wrong ideas. It goes so far in that respect, that due to certain policies, there are some customers it actively discourages.
Like those who are pro-censorship.
Protecting privacy, preventing filtering
As much as the above aspects of AAISP’s business practices are refreshing, there’s a more pressing concern that it’s been tackling in its own unique, no BS way: privacy and censorship. Over the past decade, personal privacy and available content have been attacked by various legislative and intelligence community resources, and the landscape today is one fraught with difficulties.
Perhaps your ISP filters content, making it impossible for you to visit certain websites. Perhaps you’re worried about the Snooper’s charter forcing ISPs to track what you look at online. None of this is supported by AAISP and even on its retro website, it hosts a banner that reads “say no to the Snooper’s Charter.”
“We don’t even have an infrastructure that supports filtering,” Bloor said. “If customers want to use our service, but want us to filter content, we will politely refuse their custom.”
When I asked what would happen if AAISP was given a court order or a government mandate to have some form of filtering in place, Bloor said that it isn’t something it could implement over night: “and who would pay for it?”
“We would of course operate within the law,” he said, but nobody has asked yet. While AAISP obviously hopes that remains the case, it also seemed like the only ISP that may actually contest any orders it was given, through civil disobedience or potentially outright legal action.[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwcBaRj02qI’]
“Blocking is tackling the problem in the wrong place anyway,” Bloor said. “If you find out toxic waste is being dumped in a river, you don’t offer filters to people so they can continue to drink there, you move the toxic waste.”
It’s also about giving some credit to people to police themselves and their families’ viewing habits. No household without children should be subjected to filtering designed to protect children.
“As an adult, I don’t think another adult should have the right to tell me what to look at,” Bloor said.
He gets it. When I asked if that was the way the rest of the firm felt he laughed and said the CEO would be listening back to this call, so he hoped so.
It’s not alone, but it is unique
Although AAISP stands atop a pile of other ISPs, big and small as perhaps the most well loved service provider in the UK at the moment, it’s not the only ISP that feels this way about censorship. While we were unable to elicit quite such a lengthy response from other companies, Bloor told us that his firm was not the only one that believed in the right to privacy and freedom of information.
“The big guys just did it to fall in line. There are other players out there that don’t offer filtering either. In-fact the majority of smaller, business focused ISPs don’t.”
“But they aren’t as outspoken as us,” he said.
As much as some companies may have similar, if quieter stances on privacy and government snooping, AAISP does offer services that no one else does. Like engraving, photography and 3D printing. I asked Bloor about these, wondering why it would advertise them right alongside it’s main business.
“They probably do make us look smaller than we are,” he said, understanding the tone of the question. “But we like to buy toys and it’s difficult to justify buying a big engraving machine or 3D printer just to play with, so we offer them as a service to others.”
He went on to explain that there are regular customers for some of them now, and in the past with side ventures, AAISP has spun off whole other businesses that operate as part of the collective, but independently enough to be their own entities. Like Firebrick, AAISP’s router and networking hardware business. It builds secure and bespoke hardware solutions for companies and utilises them in its own networks, so it puts its money where it’s mouth is.
The fact that Andrews and Arnold knows enough about networking to build its own networking hardware is yet more evidence that its technical acumen is a notch above that of your average ISP and leaps and bounds beyond the average ISP’s usual support team.
Finding an ISP that gives you a satisfactory service is a rare thing. We’ve learned from our countless discussions with readers that although a few have stunning connections of unparalleled speed and reliability, too many of us have lines that drop occasionally for no reason and support teams that seem at best uncaring and at worst incompetent. While we can’t vouch for the validity of any of AAISPs claims, it talks the talk and the reviewers on ISPReview believe it can back it up with action too.
It’s also refreshing to speak to an ISP that sounds like a human being, who isn’t afraid to not take its business too seriously, too corporate-ly. Yes it’s bizarre that you can get some promo shots done at the same company that handles your internet connection, but that’s much more endearing than a firm that is happy to block content just because it was told too by a lobby group.
Of course AAISP is under the radar now and it’s difficult to write pieces like this knowing that in some way it will contribute to the day when, if it continues to grow, Andrews and Arnold won’t be able to benefit from its political anonymity. But our discussion at least gave me confidence that if the time comes when AAISP is told to censor what it shows it’s customers, it would stand up against it. That’s what some European ISPs have done and they’ve won too.
I would hope though that AAISP isn’t the only one that would. If there are any other ISPs that are similarly steadfast in the face of privacy invasions and freedom constrictions, please let us know, we’d love to profile them too.
KitGuru Says: After all this talk, I’m intrigued to see how AAISP’s service stands up in the real world. In the near future I’ll switch from my current ISP (Plusnet) to Andrews and Arnold and I’ll let you know if it’s as good as Mr Bloor made it sound.