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Professional firms providing legal, trust and company services in leading offshore centres cannot ignore the potential of the Internet.

Until recently, it might have been argued that the jury was still out on the extent of the Internet's role as a business communications tool. For some, it was destined to remain the preserve of academics and computer whizzkids obsessed with the world of cyberspace, while others argued that a communications network had arrived which could have a great impact on international commerce.

The major global players in the telecommunications and information technology industries have made their decision. They are forming strategic alliances and investing huge sums of money in development projects, with the intention of making the Internet and its related on-line services an indispensable tool for commerce.

The Internet bandwagon has reached a speed that makes it unstoppable, so the question for most firms is no longer if they should get aboard but when.

In the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, where the size of the islands places a finite limit on the available office space and the number of employees who can work there, technology is playing an increasingly vital role in the ongoing success of both centres.

A close working partnership has built up between the banks, finance houses and professional firms and the computer companies that service their needs. Computer professionals in the islands have a unique insight into the specialist needs of offshore finance professionals and frequently develop systems and software products locally which have advantages over 'off the shelf' systems developed elsewhere.

The island authorities have been quick to realise the value of the Internet as a communications medium. Jersey and Guernsey were the first of the world's offshore centres to establish official sites on the Internet. In Jersey's case, there are more than 250 pages devoted to the attractions of the centre, including information from Jersey's Financial Services Department on trusts and a summary of the legislation in place in the jurisdiction.

For the present, firms are comfortable about providing information on the Net but many remain concerned about security using this means of communication.

These concerns are arguably the only brake on the full-scale commercial development of the Internet and companies in the offshore centres seeking to retain a competitive edge through technology need to be prepared for the day when commerce is confident enough to take the foot off that brake.

Another less well known aspect of the Internet, known as the Intranet, may help offshore-based firms keen to maintain a foothold in Internet developments. The Intranet uses the same technology and infrastructure as the Internet and can be used as an effective internal communications tool. Firms could make their first foray into Internet technology through the Intranet, which has none of the security risks presently associated with the Internet.

The Intranet not only offers companies a simple, cost effective method of internal communication but also has the advantage of offering a seamless transition to the Internet whenever the company believes that the time is right to hook up.

Documents, memos, reports and other in-house communications could be posted on the Intranet for internal use. And staff on business trips or working from home can access the same information using a modem and a personal computer.

Although the Intranet is an internal communications application it could also be developed to enable key clients to access relevant data at any time.

As Jersey and Guernsey grow in stature as specialist finance centres and an increasing amount of major-player legal, accountancy and trust business flows in from continental

Europe and further afield, the possible benefits of the Intranet are huge.

And foreign clients in different time zones will benefit from an extension of the service to provide a 24-hour, remote-access communications tool, separate from the Internet but using the same technology.