Ain't no such thing as a free internet connection

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It's difficult to consume media these days without being inundated by advertisements from internet service providers touting their so-called free connections. I don't know about you, but I'm a little confused by all the "amazing offers" and the deluge of free-call internet providers out there at the moment.

It's difficult to consume media these days without being inundated by advertisements from internet service providers touting their so-called free connections. I don't know about you, but I'm a little confused by all the "amazing offers" and the deluge of free-call internet providers out there at the moment.

The whole unmetered internet access situation has become something of a joke. All the excitement generated by various announcements proclaiming that call charges would be a thing of the past has come to nothing. Why has it disappointed? Because it's all a giant conspiracy aimed at making us think we're better off with the pay-per-use model.

The thing about the unmetered internet access juggernaut is that it is designed to confuse. The pricing models just don't make sense, and the difference between the numerous switching packages, flat fees for on and off-peak and the attached annual fees are far too complicated for the average Joe to understand. While I'm in the position of being able to follow unmetered developments firsthand, it doesn't stop me from being as confused as the next person.

Take, for instance, AltaVista, proclaimed as the driving force behind the culling of internet phone bills just a few months ago; all it's created is a frenzied marketplace for strange ISP business models and quite a few disenchanted consumers. For an annual fee of £60, (BT phone) users are given one of the slowest, restrictive services available. Following AltaVista's example, more than 50 so-called unmetered providers are also successfully alienating consumers and providing unreliable services. For the sake of naming names, LibertySurf, LineOne and Telewest's SurfUnlimited are some of the more high-profile ISPs not making good on their promises.

No rant is complete without mention of NTL. NTL World has not only incurred the wrath of many frustrated consumers, but it is now getting kicked into touch by the Advertising Standards Authority. This week, it emerged that poor old NTL is being investigated by the ASA, which received a record number of complaints about the misleading NTL World ads. It also looks as if NTL may be investigated by the Trading Standards Authority for promising the earth and delivering peanuts.

Excuses from these ISPs ("we're unable to cope with demand") just aren't good enough. They knew there would be huge demand, and they had enough time to lease enough servers, so why is it so bad?

My own personal theory is that the complicated models and the terrible service are part of a deliberate ploy to stop the demands for unmetered access. If this is only phase two of the whole free-access picture (phase one being subscription-free access), then roll on phase three please, and some degree of sanity being returned to the market.

The City says Yahoo!

In the City, disenchanted dot.com investors were heartened when a new word entered their vocabulary last week - profit. It came as a bit of a shock, but then composure was quickly regained. It was all down to the grand ol' daddy of the internet, Yahoo!, proving that not all internet companies are in the red, although the company saying it does just happen to be the most popular site in the world.

What happened when Yahoo! announced second-quarter profits of $65.5m was quite weird. The practically moribund dot.com stocks went on a joyride, and faith in portals was restored. Once investors had got over the excitement, though, the stocks fell back again, and soon talk resumed about the dot.com deadpool. For a moment, though, it felt like month three, the year 2000. Remember it? The only difference between now and then, aside from the obvious, is that we no longer are force-fed fluffy articles about vomit-inducing dot.com millionaires, which has to be a positive step towards overall evolution.

E-xcruciating viewing

Instead of the dot.com millionaire articles, we now have to endure things such as The E-Millionaire Show, probably the most acerbic bit of tabloid TV since, well, that Panorama documentary about the internet. Yes, I know I didn't have to watch it, but I couldn't silence that niggling voyeuristic voice in the back of my head saying, "it might be interesting (in a professional capacity, of course) and failing that, it might turn out to be column fodder". In this case, it was the latter.

The show can only be described as a cross between the worst bits of Stars in Their Eyes, Opportunity Knocks and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, a combination that made a mockery of both the internet and entrepreneurialism. The contestants weren't normal people, they were Tony Blair clones. My guess is they were trained by the same guy who teaches Tony his overly expressive presentation skills.

Some of the ideas were nothing more than carbon copies of existing websites; I shudder to think what the other 6,988 entries were like. And what was all that about Mr X on Thursday night? Talk about being a pathetic gimmick to draw attention to his, er, car website (crowded marketplace alarm bell). The whole thing just didn't work. The spin-off, however, where every move made by the winner will be caught on camera, has lots more potential. Cock-up TV, internet style. I can't wait.

amy@wagswell.co.uk

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