2000 Roundup: A Year of unmetered access?

For unmetered ISPs the millennium got off to a disastrous start with companies going bust virtually on a weekly basis

At the end of last year, BT finally gave into fierce pressure and grudgingly announced unmetered Internet access. It was hoped that the New Year would not just be the beginning of a new millennium, but the dawn of a new age for Internet surfers.

Back in January there were hints BT's SurfTime would not be all it was cracked up to be as experts questioned whether this expensive offering would be widely adopted. It was also the month when the true relationship between BT and Oftel was glimpsed. The regulator told ZDNet News that BT had not notified it about its SurfTime plans.

In February research firm Durlacher claimed the UK Internet market was being dramatically held back by the lack of unmetered services. Analyst groups claimed widespread unmetered access would triple usage in Britain. It also emerged that, having read the small print about unmetered, the industry was incensed over the SurfTime deal and that it was a complete mess.

BT then appeared to do a u-turn suggesting the price of SurfTime was about to fall. It also emerged that the government wanted BT to sort out the mess and get unmetered access on the road as soon as possible. The chancellor led the way, calling for cheaper Internet prices. By the end of the month SurfTime II was born, unfortunately to a less than welcoming industry that was rapidly growing tired of BT.

There is a phrase "as mad as a march hare" and March was certainly a crazy month in terms of unmetered. AltaVista set the cat among the pigeons with its promise of free Internet access for life for a one-off fee of £10. Full page ads and interviews on all the big TV channels ensured AltaVista's move was well publicised, sparking off a host of wannabes. Ntl, Virgin, Freeserve and LineOne all promised to join the unmetered party.

March was also the month more serious commentators took a step back and questioned how sustainable unmetered services would be and whether the telephone network would be able to cope with the huge demand.

April saw breathe and World Online adopt unmetered services but behind the scenes an almighty row was brewing between operators. WorldCom issued a complaint to Oftel that the wholesale version of SurfTime was anti-competitive and, for once, the watchdog agreed.

In May the industry started to get excited about the new improved SurfTime, predicting a new wave of price cuts. At the same time ntl was experiencing problems with its unmetered offering, which at least was up and running.

This pattern was continued in June when CallNet admitted its service was far too popular and suspended registrations. ZDNet News launched its definitive guide to unmetered access in the UK. Still with guns blazing Alta Vista announced its service was just around the corner and boldly predicted half the UK would be online within a year.

By July the glory days of unmetered (if there ever were any) were rapidly drawing to a close as services collapsed like ninepins. LineOne became the first high profile ISP to admit it couldn't sustain unmetered using the SurfTime model. It was also the month of the bandwidth hog as both redhotant and breathe told users to get offline.

In August ZDNet was forced to ask whether SurfTime was a complete disaster and it emerged that its successor, Friaco, would only be suitable to roll out in urban areas. Another unmetered ISP, Ezesurf, went under and faced investigation from Trading Standards.

As autumn approached AOL finally went unmetered, suggesting that Friaco was the only way forward for flat-rate access in the UK. World Online agreed but hiked its prices just in case. Freeserve finally gave up on its SurfTime-assisted unmetered service in October, admitting Friaco was the only way forward.

November saw more fury from users distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of unmetered services. IGClick was threatened with court action. At the beginning of December Freeserve became a Friaco convert and decided to renew its longstanding rivalry with AOL by undercutting it by a pound per user per month. At the end of the month ZDNet News confronted director general of Oftel David Edmonds over the issue of unmetered, but he refused to take any blame for the fiasco.

As we head towards the festive season it is not a cheery picture for unmetered access. Breathe has scrapped its unmetered plans and is in the hands of an administrator. And, surprise, surprise, BT has cornered the unmetered market, announcing that it now has 500,000 unmetered subscribers.

How can you get online for less? Find out in the Unmetered Access Special.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.