Unmetered access model crumbles

Small print in terms and conditions presented by ISPs gives them no moral right to let users down, argue consumer groups

ISPs are accused of being immoral in their handling of unmetered services by customers rights organisation the Consumers' Association Tuesday.

Unmetered access promised users cheap or free unlimited Internet use as an alternative to pay-per-minute access but has ended up in a mess as ISPs fail to deliver on their promises. Both LineOne and CallNet have now ditched their unmetered offerings and other ISPs, including ntl, AltaVista and redhotant have been accused of false advertising.

Consumers are outraged and feel they have been ripped off. "We've received a lot of complaints from consumers who have signed up for services which they expected to last for a little bit longer than a few months," says head of digital services at the Consumers' Association Alan Stevens. "Some have signed up for a service that doesn't actually exist -- as in AltaVista's case -- others have had issues about not being able to get on because of jammed lines."

Stevens describes the situation as "very, very unsatisfactory" and calls on consumers to read the small print on their contracts to check ISPs have the right to cancel services without notice. "Legally they may be in the right but not in a moral sense," he says.

The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) blames Oftel and again warns consumers not to be taken in by free offers. "The market has become more and more competitive and each company is trying its best to capture market share. They are making fabulous offers and consumers have to ask is it too good to be true," says an ISPA spokesman.

ISPA has received complaints about a variety of ISPs and is currently considering whether to investigate LineOne over its decision to ditch unmetered access.

While Oftel admits it too has received complaints, it denies any responsibility. "It is for companies to devise sustainable business models, we can't intervene," says a spokesman. "We point out to consumers that companies can change their terms and conditions. People can always try alternative providers."

The spokesman for the Campaign for Unmetered Access (CUT) believes that the unmetered dream was always going to be a nightmare while service providers still paid BT for leasing telephone lines. "You had a mad situation where ISPs were offering unmetered services but not wanting people to use them too much," he says. "As users we are sick of the industry continually underestimating how much we want these products."

While CUT lies much of the blame at BT's door, it believes there is light at the end of the tunnel. "BT is now in the process of talking about viable unmetered products -- principally Friaco -- and that was unthinkable six months ago."

Oftel admits that ISPs paying BT per minute for a service they passed on to consumers at an unmetered rate was "unsustainable" but it remains hopeful that a realistically priced alternative will be "very soon". The industry is currently bashing out the technical details of the Friaco agreement and CUT urges industry to work together to sort out the problems.

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