23 August 2000

US-owned internet portal Alta Vista yesterday withdrew its unconsummated plan to offer UK consumers unmetered access to the net at a £50 flat annual fee. It blamed British Telecommunications for the fiasco, alleging that the excessive call charges demanded by BT rendered the deal unviable.

The telecoms giant – formerly a state monopoly and still, many believe, unchanged in its ethos – was having none of it. Its SurfTime unmetered call package had been available to Alta Vista since June 1, it insisted. SurfTime requires that ISPs extend their networks to carry the ensuing internet traffic from one of BT’s switches to the local exchange – else pay a fee to BT for handling that leg of the traffic. BT claims that this odd arrangement has the approval of UK telecoms watchdog, Oftel.

Of equal oddity is why Alta Vista chose to announce the launch of its £50pa unmetered package on March 1 this year without first inking a deal with BT? The high profile launch attracted massive media interest and 274,000 prospective subscribers to the service. Until yesterday, despite relemtless media probing, the ISP was adamant that its non-existent service was operational.

Alta Vista’s UK managing director was contrite. In an interview on Tuesday with BBC Radio 4, he apologised unreservedly to his 274,000 disappointed customers. The company says it now expects to launch the service next January.

In the same radio programme, the director of national telecoms regulator Oftel publicly expressed his surprise that Alta Vista chose to launch the package without first getting its business plan in order.

News source: Financial Times