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Jane Wakefield: A woolly tale of a telco mammoth

BT SurfTime's PR spin has been unable to save it from disaster, as ISPs turn their noses up at the scheme, and consumers finally have the wool pulled from their eyes.
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

If there is one word Peter Bonfield will not want inscribed on his grave it is SurfTime. Of all the blunders BT has been a party to, SurfTime has to be up there among the worst.

BT's big unmetered adventure has bounced from disaster to disaster more times than Elizabeth Taylor has said "I do". In the uncomfortable marriage between telecommunications and the Internet, unmetered was the word no-one was allowed to mention around BT. The telco was more than happy to rake in the profits from all the Internet calls we made -- in fact it was growing quite fond of all the money it made from surfing. Until one day someone said: "Hang on, this isn't fair. Data is clearly different from voice and deserves a different tariff."

And with the eyes of the Internet nation on it, the telco had to do something. But instead of giving us what we wanted, BT hatched a cunning plan and put its PR machine into overdrive spinning wool to pull over our eyes.

So in November it presented us with its first bit of wool -- the 'Tariff with No Name'. (It had no name because it was about interconnect arrangements and ports and things too complicated to put a label on). It described this as a radical new scheme to enable ISPs to offer unmetered access. Renamed by industry the 'tariff that is the same as the old one but with a press release' it died a death and is filed away now in BT's vaults labelled 'Bad Idea'.

Back to the drawing board then. And in December came the second bit of wool (this was a big one, probably enough to make a small sweater). At first it looked as if BT might have got it right as it proudly offered us SurfTime. For a start it had a proper name and made a little bit of sense. Unlimited surfing at weekends for £6.99 a month, unlimited surfing in the evening for the same price or unlimited surfing round the clock for £34.99. Pick the one you fancied and bob's your uncle. Surfingtastic.

Except when ISPs -- the poor unfortunates that had to implement it -- looked at the small print they found it didn't make any sense at all. BT was asking them to pay a price for carrying half the call and then pay again for carrying the rest. Oh and it didn't bother to tell them how much this second charge would be.

What really made SurfTime look silly was the way Telewest strolled up after the biggest brains at BT had spent months if not years devising its unmetered plan and said: "Oh yeah, we can do that. A tenner a month for as much Internet as you greedy little surfers can eat. No problem."

Then came Alta Vista and ntl and so on making SurfTime look like a woolly mammoth -- ie extinct. BT was forced to relaunch it -- this time with just two tariffs -- £5.99 for evenings and weekends, £19.99 for round the clock.

This service was simple and had no hidden costs, promised BT. At this point you have to imagine that the wool has gone down over your eyes and is covering your whole face, including importantly your brain.

The 'hidden costs' spotted by WorldCom and recognised by Oftel as so anti-competitive that it forced BT to offer an alternative were not really hidden at all. And it is so simple that no-one I have ever spoken to about it, including BT's own staff, can adequately explain it.

But the best joke is yet to come. BT's marketing director Angus Porter describes SurfTime as offering a "surfer's paradise". Which makes me wonder if he would also consider an ocean without waves as a surfer's paradise. Many would argue that far from creating paradise BT has done its damnedest to offer surfers a vision of hell for the last five years, but not being religious I am not qualified to comment.

What BT has done is broken its promises. The billboards advertising SurfTime make no mention of the £19.99 part of the deal which surprised me given that unlimited surfing was surely the whole point of the deal. I am not the only one weighing up the promises with what BT has delivered and finding the scales very wobbly indeed. Why did BT promise us all the Internet we can eat for £19.99 yet its own Internet company is now only offering users the £5.99 off-peak option? And why are only three other ISPs are signed up, only one of which is offering the full SurfTime service.

Actually why don't you just admit that SurfTime has been an unmitigated disaster. Because we know that for all its Mandelson-style spin, there just wasn't enough wool in the world for BT to pull over our eyes. SurfTime which BT envisaged as a clever way of pleasing the national call for unmetered access while protecting its precious network, has unwittingly lit the touchstone for a whole host of successors -- promising to be cheaper and simpler to understand.

Without SurfTime, Oftel would never have been able to make its historic ruling last week, which effectively allows any operator to launch its own version of the service. SurfTime laid the ground rules and they were BT rules and then Oftel -- in a very uncharacteristically firm way -- said hand over those rules. And it rewrote them. So what BT had hoped to control has fallen out of its hands and like children who make their friends play only by their rules it has ended up alone.

Except for four loyal ISPs who may or may not carry on playing BT's game. So BT is once again left behind in the Internet game it played and lost. Its monopoly of the Net is over and that is indeed many people's idea of a surfer's paradise.

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