All fall down - CallNet buckles

Unprecedented demand on telephone registration lines fells UK's first totally free Internet service

Despite hopes that today would herald a new age of totally free Internet service in the UK, analysts' fears were proved well-founded today as CallNet floundered under pressure.

The company admitted this morning that it had not been able to cope with overwhelming initial demand for its free Internet service.

It has posted a notice on its Web site stating that registration has been suspended.

Users of Callnet's "totally free Internet access" service were given an 0800 number with which to make their connection, in the hope they would avoid any setup costs, call costs, or subscription fees. A further carrot was dangled in front of potential users' noses in the shape of 30 percent savings on voice calls if registered users used the prefix 145.

The 16-month old UK company said it was offering the service through it's partnership with principle investor North American Gateway (NAG) . Last week a spokesman for NAG said: "We are obviously aware of the issues, but we are confident we have the required support and technical ability to cope. This is because of the way we control the number of users on the service. We do this by controlling the inbound flow using a caller's unique CLI (Caller Line Identification). If you are not dialling from your registered CLI, you won't get in."

But this control could not account for the huge number of hopeful callers attempting to register for CallNet's service this morning.

A similar lesson was learnt the hard-way at Hampden Park last week, the home of the Scottish Football Association. On Friday, an unprecedented demand for tickets for next month's crucial Euro 2000 qualifier between England and Scotland caused a British Telecom call system to crash minutes after it was opened for business at 9 am. The outage came despite similar problem's at Wembley the previous week for tickets to the other leg of the match, and assurances from BT that its system at Hampden was foolproof and "100 percent guaranteed to work." Service was resumed later Friday.

Industry observers had predicted this morning's CallNet calamity as recently as last week. Paul Myers, MD of UK ISP X-Stream dismissed NAG's contingency plans as "ridiculous" arguing that no carrier could cope with the expected load. Similarly, James Eibisch, analyst at research company IDC predicted problems: "I would take all this with a pinch of salt," he had said. "Basically I'll believe it when I see it."