AOL says 'Yes' - sort of

AOL has responded to reports it is to go free with a wooly statement that hints any free service would be in addition to existing services.

The hazy statement comes just over a month after David Phillips, managing director of AOL UK wrote exclusively for ZDNet News saying the free model was "not the solution". Speaking today Phillips said in a statement: "We are looking at a variety of options, including the so-called 'free' services model as an addition to the successful subscription-based AOL and CompuServe brands."

Unfazed by her leader's apparent change of heart an AOL spokeswoman laid down a challenge to Freeserve, the firm that knocked AOL off its top spot as U.K. ISP. "When we feel it, if we feel it is an option we would do it better than anyone else," she said.

A report out today from Internet research firm Fletchers puts AOL in third position behind Freeserve and BTClickFree. A poll of 40,000 Net users gives Freeserve what Fletchers termed a "formidable lead" with 31 percent of home Web accounts, with BT ClickFree on 14 percent and AOL lagging with just nine percent.

The AOL spokeswoman dismissed the survey and claimed AOL still occupies second place in the battle for Internet eyeballs. "I'm not sure how representative the figures are. We are still ahead of BT ClickFree and we are continuing to grow," she said. AOL currently has around 600,000 users.

Neil Bradford, director of Fletcher Research is confident Freeserve can stay in front: "In just nine months, the Internet access industry has been revolutionised by the advent of subscription-free providers," he said. "We do not expect any other brand to be able to match, let alone overtake, Freeserve's progress, unless a new business model for delivering access arrives, such as offering free phone calls or free PCs."

How many days until AOL goes free? Tell the Mailroom