Jane Wakefield: Town and country clash on unmetered

The debate between the city and the country has raged forever and now BT enters the fray

While I have been known to occasionally frequent trendy city wine bars, I am at heart a country girl -- happier drinking cider than chardonnay. So I take it particularly personally that BT's latest attempt to dodge the unmetered issue puts us country folk at a distinct digital disadvantage.

Our sophisticated city friends will soon be able to benefit from the latest unmetered offering from BT -- a wholesale deal that WorldCom has already signed up for and which other beleagered ISPs may turn to as their own business plans crumble. But while our urban mates are busy surfing for theatre tickets, our country cousins will be languishing in rural cyberpoverty with only the glow of a warm fire for company.

How quickly times change on the Net. For a while we were all equal under the unmetered umbrella as deal after unbelievable deal offered us Internet access for a tenner a year, Internet access for life for a fiver, Internet access for the next seven generations of your family for a shilling.

But within three months the house of cards that unmetered access was built on began to tumble and unmetered ISPs started to fall like coconuts. Some mumbled that it was BT's fault because it was still charging operators per minute for renting telephone lines. But it was not until the biggest and most publicised deal floundered that BT faced the spotlight.

Andy Mitchell, managing director of AltaVista, has not had the best of weeks. When the Yank-based company rushed into the besieged UK Internet market guns blazing back in March it seemed as if they were the answer to our prayers, offering us a seemingly unbelievable deal. Internet fever had well and truly come to stay as even the Sun, not generally a big follower of tech news, decided to devote a front page story to it.

So, in order to deflect some of the barrage of criticism following the decision to ditch unmetered, Mitchell has blamed BT. Everyone loves a ruck and BT rose gloriously to the challenge, pretty much accusing AltaVista of lying and presenting its all new-improved unmetered product as evidence that AltaVista was merely attempting to pass the buck and creep out the back exit without being seen.

The one thing I love about BT is its ability to spin. In fact if Tony Blair ever gets sick of Alistair Campbell he could do worse than turn to the telco in search of a new spin doctor. And this latest bit of spin is quite brilliant in many ways. It allows BT to go on Newsnight and declare that ISPs are their own worse enemy, and it already has an unmetered wholesale product to offer them. To add weight to that claim, it also proudly announces that it had signed up rival telco WorldCom.

Which on the face of it sounds pretty good. After all, if you have been following the twists and turns of the unmetered story you will know that it was a complaint from WorldCom back in May that forced BT to offer such a product. So if WorldCom has signed up to the Friaco-style deal, surely it must be OK.

Well no, not really. Scrutinise the small print and it turns out that BT has been acting rather like a used car salesman who offers us cut and shut cars, half BMW, half Robin Reliant. While the first half of the contract with WorldCom is based on the Friaco agreement demanded by Oftel, the second half uses an older leased line agreement. So while operators can lease bandwidth for the first mile of the call, for the rest it has to lease individual lines, making it cost effective only for large ISPs and in urban areas.

So, operators wishing to take advantage of BT's latest unmetered compromise will have to weigh up whether it is worth running an Internet connection from Seamus McDouglas' house in a remote village in the Highlands. And the answer will almost certainly be no. The digital divide, so feared by Tony Blair, has finally come to haunt the Internet community.

Attempting to understand the complexities of the UK telecoms market is enough to give even the cleverest acronym-friendly telecoms engineer a major headache.

It is, quite frankly, harder than long division. In fact the only way I came anywhere near to understanding it was when someone drew three boxes on a piece of paper -- one of a house, one of a local exchange and one of a main exchange. The wires that connect our houses to the local exchange -- called in telecom speak the local loop -- is owned almost exclusively by BT. And as it has had a lot of its other wires taken away, it is jealously guarding its last little remnant of monopoly.

Friaco was intended to end this last piece of incumbency but it would seem that BT, ever the Houdini, has managed to wriggle out of it again. Relying on the fact that the UK telecoms market is so complicated and hoping that most people will have better things to do than try and get to the bottom of it, BT has managed to persuade us that it is best friends with unmetered Internet access.

It is not and those people living in parts of England that still have hills and cows may find their ISP will not be prepared to carry the cost of unmetered Internet access.

Next summer the local loop unbundles and those precious bits of copper BT is clinging onto will finally be offered to other operators. Then maybe we will find the digital divide BT has opened this week may finally start to close.

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