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Thursday, 17 August, 2000, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Unmetered users prove hard to find
Altavista UK
AltaVista UK will not answer questions about its unmetered service
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Net provider Altavista is refusing to comment on claims that its much mentioned unmetered internet service has no users.

Searches by national papers and online news sites have failed to find any users of the service despite Altavista claiming it has around 100,000 people signed up.

In March Altavista promised to shake up UK internet access by letting people spend as much time as they want online for an annual fee.

But almost six months later all Altavista has to show for its promises are two other services which leave people either paying for calls or limiting their time online.

We've not been able to find anyone using the unmetered service and nor has anyone else

Alan Stevens, Which

Unmetered myths

Earlier this year Altavista UK won praise from e-commerce minister Patricia Hewitt for its announcement of an unmetered service.

Instead of letting surfers pay call charges Altavista planned to route them through an 0800 number. The only fees were to have been an annual fee and a sign-up charge of 36.

Around 500,000 people registered an interest in using the service which Altavista promised to turn on in late June.

But in June Altavista announced that it was raising the annual fee for the service to 60 and it was capping how many people could use it.

But now searches by national newspapers, net magazines and several online technology news sites have failed to turn up evidence of any users, prompting speculation that the service has not been switched on.

"When any new unmetered ISP goes live we always get feedback from people on their service quality," said Mark Jackson, editor in chief of website ISP Review. "However, with Altavista nothing came."

Alan Stevens, head of digital services at the Consumers' Association, said it has had several complaints from users keen to use the service.

"We've not been able to find anyone using the unmetered service and nor has anyone else," he said.

Silent service

Spokespeople for Altavista declined to comment on whether the service was working or if many people were using it. They said only UK managing director Andy Mitchell could comment.

Mr Mitchell is due back from holiday on Monday.

All that those registering for the service have received from Altavista is an e-mail offering them two other services.

One asks surfers to pay call charges and the other charges 60 per year for 20 hours of off-peak access per month.

Paying for popularity

The suspicion is that the company has been caught out by the economics of the UK telephone market and now has got cold feet about launching a service that other ISPs can't make work.

Currently, even though users do not pay for time online under unmetered deals the ISP providing the service does.

This has led to LineOne and Callnet 0800 stopping their unmetered services and Breathe and RedHotAnt struggling to cope with demand.

Only small ISPs such as FreeChariot and Freecall can make unmetered work by limiting the numbers they take on and waiting until a new charging regime comes in.

FreeChariot is capping the number of subscribers at 30,000.

One company, Totalise, is trying to make unmetered work by charging 235 for a 100 hours of unmetered surfing per month. In return subscribers get 400 of shares in the company that it claims will cover the cost of the fee if they are sold.

Later this year Flat Rate Internet Access Call Origination is due to come in which will mean ISPs pay BT for the number of lines they use not how much traffic flows over them.

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See also:

18 Jul 00 | Business
Unmetered web access in trouble
09 Jun 00 | Business
AltaVista raises Net deal price
08 Mar 00 | Business
BT fuels internet price war
06 Mar 00 | Business
Altavista heralds net revolution
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