As the popularity of unmetered internet access packages rises so, too, have users' expectations of their ISPs. A speedy connection is one of the most important factors, according to a report by consumer research group JD Power.

The UK Residential ISP Customer Satisfaction Study, released yesterday, found that for 37 percent of the 1,788 ISP subscribers polled connection speed was of primary importance.

AOL took pole position for customer image, overall satisfaction and customer service. NTL came second, scoring high on costs and billing options.

"We are extremely pleased our customers are happy with the service," said an AOL spokesperson, "but we will also be focusing on the areas that people were less satisfied with and hopefully improve them."

The survey found that internet call charges had fallen by an average of 50 percent since 2000. Nearly a third of all UK households now use the internet and spend on average more than seven hours per week online.

"The internet in the UK still has considerable potential for growth," said Gunda Lapski, director of telecommunications and ISP studies at JD Power. "Extensive industry consolidation in the past 12 months has placed industry leaders in a strong position to benefit from anticipated growth."

"ISPs must be ready for a sharp growth in internet usage this year, which will put them under pressure to retain their customers," agreed Colin Greene, managing director of Tiny Online, which received top marks for connectivity speeds.

Internet packages are evolving parallel to the rise in internet take-up, with one in five customers now opting for unmetered access.

"As unmetered access grows in the UK, we can expect to see people much longer on the net at any one time. This will push ISPs to dramatically increase both the quality and quantity of their content in an effort to retain customers," said Greene.

The survey found people were extremely loyal to their chosen ISP.

"The number of households that indicate they will switch providers in the next 12 months has halved to 13 percent from 26 percent in 2000," said JD Power's Lapski. "However the churn rate in the last 12 months has remained high, with 32 percent of households changing providers."