Jane Wakefield: The unmetered comedy of errors

CallNet has called it off, RedHotAnt proves to be only lukewarm, AltaVista hasn't got its act together - so here's hoping Friaco won't be a fiasco

Like the weekly nomination of Caroline for expulsion from the Big Brother house, the unmetered debacle has a sickening inevitability about it. And again, like Caroline, it has all ended in tears before bedtime.

CallNet0800 users are the latest ones left crying as CallNet calls time on the service. For months customers have been complaining that the offer was actually quite crap -- that if you registered you would wait months to hear back, that engaged tones meant an average of twenty attempts to get online and that once online it was quite likely the service would disconnect.

Now they have only until 5 September to enjoy (or not) the completely free Internet access paraded so proudly and confidently by CallNet back in November. Those unkind detractors of the service may mutter that three weeks is about the time it takes to get a satisfactory online experience from the service.

CallNet has been singled out because it was one of the few unmetered offerings that was completely free and because its marketing men were so brash about how wonderful the service would be. But it would be wrong to pick solely on CallNet when it is by no means the only one to have royally ballsed up the delivery of unmetered Internet access. LineOne (which is bigger and older than CallNet and should really have known better) also turned round to its customers a couple of weeks back and said rather sheepishly: "You know that service we offered you? Well you can't have it any more."

RedHotAnt and breathe had a different tactic, blaming their customers for spoiling things by taking the unlimited Internet access offers far too literally and staying online 24 hours a day. With quite astonishing front they turned round to users and said: "I know we said you could have unlimited Internet access, but we didn't really mean it."

AltaVista had perhaps the best scam of the lot. Responsible for setting the whole unmetered ball rolling -- and turning Internet access into a tabloid issue -- its offer of Internet access for life for £10 turns mysteriously into £50 a year with a £50 annual renewal fee. And the summer launch date it promised seems likely to slip into the autumn.

Like shaking a rattle beyond the reach of a baby or a drunk handing out the contents of his wallet in the pub only to demand them back when he sobers up, there is something distinctly uncharitable about the way the ISPs have treated us over unmetered access.

The Consumers' Association goes one step farther, evangelically labelling ISPs as immoral for advertising services they never intended to launch or closing services down without a by your leave.

For me the whole unmetered debacle perfectly mirrors the bullish nature of the Internet gold rush, where young men who still look silly in suits try to live out Delboy's dream of becoming a millionaire. The wannabe dot-com millionaires have too many dollar signs in their eyes to see that the offerings they believe will make their fortunes actually make little if any financial sense and often offer little of any value to consumers.

And so it was with the ISPs knee-jerk reaction to AltaVista's promise of free Internet access. Share price and traffic go hand-in-hand in the hastily rewritten new economy. So if an ISP is losing customers, its shares (if it is lucky enough to have any) will go on a downward spiral.

Panicking at the idea of losing customers to cheap deals that were no more than a twinkle in the AltaVista's chairman's eye, UK ISPs fell over themselves to dangle equally enticing offers before its customers. The Internet is as fickle as a woman and a loyal subscriber one day can very easily become a lost statistic the next. And the one thing ISPs couldn't afford to lose was eyeballs.

As it turns out, another thing they couldn't afford was unmetered access. Fools rush in, as they say, and (in the interest of keeping the cliches coming thick and fast) ISPs were lambs to the slaughter. Still in cliche land, analysts muttered things about there being no such thing as a free lunch and BT sat back and did a fair impression of the cat that got the cream as it raked in revenue for all the new onliners the cheap and free offers were attracting.

And therein lay the rub. For while ISPs were passing on cheap or even free Internet access to its customers, they were still paying BT for every call they made. And while the pay-per-minute Internet access clock was turned off for consumers, ISPs were still paying BT at a metered rate. Which meant -- in marketing speak -- that the services were financially unsustainable. The silliest thing was that AltaVista -- which sparked the lemming-like rush off the unmetered cliff -- hadn't actually stolen any of the others ISPs customers because it hadn't launched a service at all.

So now we have a few people still offering cheap or free Internet access. Many have suspended registrations for the time being and analysts predict that those that have delayed launch -- like AltaVista and Virgin -- may turn round and cancel the idea altogether.

AOL, one of the few UK ISPs not to launch an unmetered offering -- will probably be feeling quite pleased with itself not to be associated with the unmetered comedy of errors. It has had the sense (and the bank balance) to wait.

And what is it waiting for? BT to come up with a viable wholesale unmetered product that can be passed on to ISPs, which in turn can offer it to customers -- this time with a reasonable flat fee of say £10 to £15 a month. The deal which is currently being hammered out goes by the unsexy name of Friaco and will, it is hoped, allow ISPs to pay BT a flat rate for access to its lines which in turn will make it easier to set a realistic and sustainable price for unmetered.

So while unmetered may be down it is definitely not out. Next time round it might even work!

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