If a new Oftel report, out today, is to be taken at face value, the UK may soon have real unmetered Internet access.
The report may be 72 pages long, filled with yet more tedious acronyms and as interesting as reading the phone book, but the report appears to indicate that Oftel has insisted upon BT extending the FRIACO unmetered Net access system into something practical.
The flat-rate fee that other operators pay for Net access will be extended to cover the entire journey from consumer to ISP and not just stop at BT's network. BT will have to open its switches and move traffic along its main voice network, and not charge a per-second fee like before. This effectively means that ISPs can build reliable business models. It also means cheaper access for UK consumers. Some people are claiming a £10 a month fee, but we reckon this is a little over-optimistic.
The plan will be implemented in stages starting 1 February next year. For those interested in the figures, BT will initially have to offer 13,500 ports at 2Mbps each for £17,692.32 a port (where the hell does Oftel get these figures from?). It's a first-come, first-served system.
If you'll remember, the initial Flat Rate Internet Access Call Origination scheme was knocked up in June because MCI Worldcom got very angry with BT and started a court case. Under this super scheme, other operators (now known as OLOs - other licensed operators) would be entitled to a flat rate for Net access. This sparked a hundred and one unmetered packages, all advertised heavily to consumers and all dead within a few months. Most famous of course was AltaVista, whose MD left after he was no longer able to lie about having 120,000 subscribers. It actually had, er, none.
The demise of the unmetered model was, as usual, down to that self-protecting monolith we all know and love as BT. Yes, operators could buy flat-rate access from a customer's home to BT's local network, but once there, well, charges started to vary and performance got a little shaky. Why? Because poor old BT wasn't able to handle that kind of traffic - that's why it had to charge more and keep control of the lines, see?
Oftel didn't know whether to believe BT or not (not is usually the best bet) and so it set up an expert panel to check out the situation. And, d'you know what, BT wasn't lying. Well, not entirely. According to the experts, if things go on as they are, BT's network could be full to capacity by 2001. That is, of course, if BT do bugger all to improve the network.
But this - gasp! - is where Oftel has finally finally proved its worth as a watchdog. It has told BT that, yes, its network could become overloaded and that is why it will put ceilings on the traffic its trunk will have to carry for the next year. After that, tough. It's not really what you'd call an incentive for BT to get its act together, but it the best that Oftel has ever come up with.
Unfortunately it looks as though Oftel will give BT control over how and how much traffic will be re-routed during the year.
Of course, ole David Edmonds, Oftel head honcho had his usual self-aggrandising set-piece: "Oftel's proposals will give a major boost to the availability of unmetered Internet access for consumers. These measures should allow millions of people to have unlimited access to the Internet without running up high call charges. "There was plenty more but it wasn't very interesting to be honest.
But, this is good. Oftel for perhaps the first time since Edmonds took over has ignored BT's pathetic, obstructive comments and decided itself what it possible. It has then told BT what's going to happen and left it to make its own route there. If only this had happened even a year ago.
Coincidentally, the resident cynic at Vulture Central wonders if Oftel's sudden change of heart has anything to do with the fact that David Edmonds is due to take a major roasting tomorrow at the hands of the trade and industry commission.
MPs have been less than impressed with Oftel's record, talking of "deep-seated problems". Today's announcement could be seen as a significant spoiler. We shall see how often David refers to today's announcement with regard to his year-long failure to get BT moving. ®