Jane Wakefield: Say hello Yanks, wave goodbye BT

Surftime is dead! Long live Surftime!

Just as courtiers in the days of powerful kings tried to make the best of the death of their monarch, so BT (quote: BT) is trying to raise Surftime from the ashes without admitting the original ever died. "There is no Surftime II," says BT, just refinements to the original (not so says Oftel, which includes the term "Surftime II" in a release). Oh, and then there are the hordes of ISPs that say BT has gone back to the drawing board to design its flagship unmetered service from scratch. But we believe you, BT.

Surftime -- announced in December 1999 -- was to be the jewel in the telco's unmetered crown. However, last week the crown was beginning to look a little tarnished as Oftel scrawled a big red cross through the service and ordered BT to go home and do it again.

ISPs, it would seem, have finally found shelter under the watchdog's wing as it takes up their calls for changes to the service. In order to take up Surftime, ISPs would have to build extensions to their existing networks, which they claim would be expensive and time-consuming. If BT went ahead with its retail offering while the ISPs were still busy putting the nuts and bolts to their own services, it would gain an unfair market advantage. Well, that's what the ISPs say.

BT has countered that the real reason ISPs don't like Surftime is because they'll no longer make money on telephone calls. ISPs, BT says, are simply "bellyaching" -- on the one hand, itching to be free of BT's apron strings, but on the other, happy to cling to their own share of telephony revenue. So if BT is the Big Bad Wolf of the Internet, then the ISPs are the little pigs, thrust out into the cruel world of the Internet where there is nothing as certain as uncertainty. Will they make their fortunes from the twin Eldorados of advertising and e-commerce or will they find that, without BT, their houses are made of straw?

That's the risk they will have to take, BT reckons. Some might raise a smile at the idea of BT telling ISPs to adopt a different business model when they have guarded their own as fiercely as a spoiled child clings to its toys. But then, when was BT's response to the Internet ever consistent?

So, just like a washing powder advertisement, we now have the new-improved Surftime, which is, hopefully, ISP-friendly. BT, Oftel and the ISPs are remaining strangely quiet on what these changes are. However, it is expected that BT will make an announcement soon -- just don't be surprised if the spring launch date turns suddenly to summer. And don't be surprised if BT tries to convince us summer is spring.

Oh, and just to show that it treats all of its services equally, BT has also delayed the launch of ADSL -- until the summer. Despite the fact Demon Internet found its ADSL trial seriously over-subscribed, BT claims that no-one wants to come and play with the technology at its house. Aaaaah, bless.

By the time BT has got its act together, it may well find that it has no-one left to sell to. Why pay £34.99 a month for unlimited surfing when AltaVista is offering it for £10 a year?

Oh yes, the Yanks are coming to the rescue of the beleaguered Brits as AltaVista blasts onto the UK Internet scene with a welcoming present straight from the pocket of Uncle Sam. With it will probably come an all-American business plan -- you'll have to agree to watch adverts for the rest of your life, or support an American football team or promise to drink nothing but Budweiser for seven years. But hell, it may just be worth it, especially if it leaves BT as the poor little matchgirl selling its wares outside the Internet stadium as we stand inside raising our glasses to the new media companies that dared to compete with it.

Mine's a Bud, please.

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