AltaVista rejects unmetered, industry reacts

Consumer group condemns ISPs for offering services they couldn't deliver and Oftel reveals the solution could still be months away

The Consumers' Association Tuesday calls on ISPs to take their share of the blame for the unmetered fiasco while Oftel reveals that Friaco -- believed by industry to be the solution to the problem -- will not be available until autumn at the earliest.

Alta Vista, which has dumped its much-publicised plans for flat rate Internet access, is blaming BT for not providing ISPs with a viable rental package but the Consumers' Association believes outraged users will feel that this is just passing the buck.

"It is a bit rich for AltaVista to put the blame onto BT," says public affairs manager Adam Scorer. "ISPs and BT need to shoulder the blame. It is certainly an issue that BT's charging regime makes it difficult to offer unmetered services but if it is difficult you shouldn't say you can deliver. You don't run before you can walk and you don't offer services in the hope that one day you will be able to deliver them," he says.

BT dismisses claims that it is to blame for the breakdown of AltaVista's services as "absolute nonsense" and says it is already offering ISPs to chance to rent lines from it at an unmetered rate. "We have had a flat rate offer on the table since June and it is up to operators whether they take it up or not," says a spokesman.

There is currently a fiercely fought battle going on in the industry to provide users with truly unmetered access, widely believed to be a much better way of charging for Internet access than current per minute models. The row centres around the need for a wholesale product that will enable ISPs to rent BT's lines at an unmetered rate.

BT currently controls over 80 percent of local telephone lines and charges other operators per minute to rent them. It has long resisted pressure to offer an unmetered version of line rental to operators but following anti-competitive complaints from rival telco WorldCom, Oftel forced it to roll out Friaco in June. The first version of this -- Friaco I -- was widely criticised by operators because part of the call was still being charged per minute.

"People didn't like it so BT is working with industry to provide another," says an Oftel spokeswoman.

Only weeks ago Oftel was promising Friaco II would be available imminently but it now reveals there could be technical problems. "We have commissioned a report to see if it is technically possible to have a wholly unmetered product," claims the spokeswoman. "If people are using the service 24 hours a day there will be an increase in traffic and we have to find out if the network can cope."

Jammed lines have been a common problem for ISPs offering unmetered services. Breathe banned 500 users from its unmetered service following over-use and both RedHotAnt and LineOne complained that users were abusing the service.

For users who blame ISPs rather than BT for the failure to deliver unmetered services, there is little they can do, claims the Consumers' Association. The consumer body intends to ask the Advertising Standards Authority -- which has received a record number of complaints about ntl's free Internet service -- to investigate industry-wide promotion of unmetered access in an attempt to bring ISPs to book but has admitted that legally there is little that can be done.

Trading standards officials have claimed they cannot investigate cases because most service providers' contracts state in the small print that they have the right to withdraw services.

After the initial outrage from disappointed customers Scorer believes the current unmetered debacle will do long-lasting damage to the UK's Internet industry. "Consumers will now be suspicious about these kind of deals and are finding it increasingly difficult to make informed choices," he says.

He believes a dedicated Internet service consumer organisation is long overdue and also calls on government to create a telecoms watchdog that can regulate services as well as the network.

Tony Westbrook reckons that when something seems too good to be true, experience suggests that it usually is. As it was with the recent rash of completely free internet access offerings. One of the culprits for scuppering the free services must be BT who is sticking firmly to its June 2001 date for unbundling the local loop -- the last possible date by which it has to do it. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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