The man behind free Net access - Exclusive

In a heated interview with ZDNet UK News, the chief of CallNet admits faults and makes a public apology

A couple of weeks ago a little known ISP sent out a press release claiming it was about to turn the UK's Net access model on its head by offering totally free Net access . Analysts scoffed, while competitors frantically ran around -- calculators in hand -- to find out how the little guy could do it...

Three weeks on and the fairy tale is over, with a backlog of customers trying to sign up and other launch problems.

ZDNet UK news editor Richard Barry was invited by CallNet to an exclusive interview with chief executive operations officer Aaron Goodman-Simpson on what went wrong and the company's plans for a brighter future.

Simpson spoke about the path to setting up the company and issued an apology for CallNet0800's service glitches.

Briefly, give us the CallNet story, where did it all start?

It has a varied evolution and CallNet is just one part of the World CallNet company. To tell the truth, CallNet originally started in a pub in Hampshire, way back. We touted the free ISP model as early 1997 and I think we put our first business plan forward in January 1998.

We spoke to everyone and his dog about free Net access but unfortunately we were beaten to the punch by Freeserve.

Why did you set it up? Anything to do with good old altruism?

Well there was a gap in the market. We saw an opportunity and believed people would respond positively. We knew they would. Our goal now is to be a major player in this market. People really do want free Net access and that's what we're offering.

Was it difficult getting investment?

Yes. The vast proportion of the investment was actually raised in Australia during the last 90 days. Basically we have money from Australia and America, the UK is probably one of the most difficult places to raise money. If you want investment for technology you still need to go outside the UK .

As an example, our new product MailTV is recognised as a mass market product in Australia. It will be in the UK too, but it's just harder to get investors to take technology investment seriously here, although, yes, things are changing.

With the launch of CallNet0800 you achieved a lot of press coverage. You promised you would cope .

Well that statement is slightly incorrect. Our target has always been, and you can check your quotes, that we would achieve 200,000 registered users by Christmas. Once we had achieved that then we would choke back with our network expansion.

That's the responsible way to do this. We plan to grow quickly and in a responsible way.

And no one is questioning your intentions. However, I personally spoke to CallNet on the Thursday before launch. You promised you would cope, but by Monday the 0800 telephone service was on its knees. The Web site was overloaded. Any reasonable person would see that as a collapse wouldn't they?

CallNet did not collapse. That in point of fact is something the press have missed out on completely. Our network was and is stable and has never collapsed as you reported . And you know, at any one time we received 50,000 calls. But we did not collapse.

But people could not get on to the system to register. People wrote to ZDNet in their thousands complaining they couldn't get on. Then you posted a note on your site telling users not to register because the traffic was too great. Perhaps your system didn't go down in a ball of flames, but undeniably it buckled. Didn't it?

What we said was that we would achieve 200,000 users. We are still saying that.

That's not the point. You made guarantees but in reality you underestimated demand, didn't you. That's why the system buckled.

No, we didn't underestimate demand. We have thousands more people wishing to get on to the system than predicted. Demand is far exceeding supply. But what's important is that we've brought forward our expansion plans. We will be responsible to those people who have registered.

So What happened? Why can't people register, even now?

What basically happened was that there was a sheer number of calls. We had to put a natural choker on the registrations, that's why we put the notice on the site.

So whose fault was it? We heard from CallNet that it was BT's fault and from BT that it was your fault.

Regardless of the bandwidth we'd have had in place it would not have been enough. We would have had to have taken a reactive approach to solve it.

We're happy with the help we've had from BT.

And I think you need to look at some history here. England v Scotland were matched up against one another and the demand for tickets was just immense. It's comparable because this [CallNet] is far bigger than anything else in this country. We're the first to give users what they want.

To be honest I don't think you should shoot the messenger. Wish us well.

I want to say again, our capacity never foundered.

Take me to: The man behind free Net access Part 2