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Industry 'incensed' over Surftime

ISPs, and now chancellor Gordon Brown, believe BT isn't doing enough -- despite its flat-rate package

BT's Surftime has "incensed the entire ISP industry", Tim Pearson, chairman of ISPA (Internet Service Providers Association), told ZDNet Wednesday.

On Tuesday it emerged that BT may drop the price of the service -- currently set at £34.99 a month for unlimited Net use -- even before it is launched in April. The company has been forced to offer an unmetered alternative to standard, pay-per-minute Internet access following pressure from the government and consumers. Surftime, which was announced in December, met with a fairly lukewarm reaction, and on Monday, cable company Telewest pipped BT to the post by rolling out an unmetered service for £10 a month.

Pearson was in no doubt that Surftime is a mess and is merely reacting to government pressure. "There is very considerable discontent in the industry over Surftime," he said, claiming the service "will damage rather than enhance the market". ISPs are concerned not just about pricing, but also about how the service will work. "If you are a big ISP, you have little choice but to negotiate with BT about Surftime. But if you ask if (ISPs) are happy, the answer is no," Pearson added.

BT attempted to claw back credibility for Surftime, claiming that Oftel, the government and ISPs have responded positively to the service. However, Jeremy Griggs, the member of BT's ISP group responsible for gathering feedback, has a different view. He admitted that ISPs "want something different" from the current Surftime offering.

It's not just BT's half-hearted attitude to unmetered access that angers ISPA either. "It is also the way Oftel has reacted to it. We are losing faith in Oftel's ability to regulate BT, and the only ray of hope on the horizon is local loop unbundling," said Griggs.

In an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday, chancellor Gordon Brown offered additional support, claiming that the unbundling timetable needs to be brought forward to increase competition and stimulate e-commerce.

However, Ovum analyst Tim Johnson has some sympathy for BT's unmetered dilemma. "It is a difficult situation for them. Potentially, people will be able to dial up their ISP for Internet access and voice calls for one flat fee, and BT will be locked into losing money," he said.

Johnson believes it is time for a sea change in BT's attitude to the Internet. "BT should be taking the bull by the horns and discussing a completely new style of telecoms," he said. He advises that BT to take heed of its own "Good to Talk" advertising campaign. "We need open discussion with the government and the public. At the moment, BT is not talking, which is doing it a lot of damage," he added.

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