What happened when Humpty-Dumpty logged on

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The Independent Online

The Internet has always had a rather Humpty-Dumpty character about it, where words mean precisely what you want them to mean at any time. So it seems to have been with the American company AltaVista's announcement in March that it would offer flat-rate internet access "in the next two months". Yesterday, the company admitted that, having let 280,000 people sign up eagerly for the service, it now has no plans to launch it - at least not before next year, and even then not at any definite time. To any reasonable person, that's stretching the meaning of "two months".

The Internet has always had a rather Humpty-Dumpty character about it, where words mean precisely what you want them to mean at any time. So it seems to have been with the American company AltaVista's announcement in March that it would offer flat-rate internet access "in the next two months". Yesterday, the company admitted that, having let 280,000 people sign up eagerly for the service, it now has no plans to launch it - at least not before next year, and even then not at any definite time. To any reasonable person, that's stretching the meaning of "two months".

The debate degenerated rapidly yesterday, with AltaVista blaming BT for not making the phone circuits available at the right price, BT saying that it had never realised that AltaVista's brave promises were contingent on it, BT, coming up with new services. And everyone rushed to point fingers, sometimes in both directions at once.

Notably absent while this dreary industry backbiting went on were two of the characters who helped to stir it all up: the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. The former leapt on AltaVista's claim, in a speech in March, as evidence of how Britain was striding forward in e-commerce; the latter sternly said in February that he would "not tolerate foot-dragging" over the reduction of telephone pricing - it must halve, he said. By 2002, that is.

In a world in which internet companies are born, explode into consciousness and die in months, it is no longer enough for the Government to offer such generous deadlines. If Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are serious about encouraging e-commerce then they need to give the telecommunications regulator Oftel more power to twist BT's arm further, so that it will act more quickly. Has Oftel ever fined BT? Has BT ever beaten an Oftel deadline for making its network more open? We think not. That either suggests a harmonious relationship (unlikely, given that the previous head of Oftel was the rancorous Don Cruickshank), or else one where BT holds the cards. How would you bet?

Meanwhile, the British internet-user's search for high-quality unmetered access where you can stay online as long as you like for a reasonable price, remains a challenge whose rewards are out of proportion to the effort. From July next year, it will be better, we are told, once BT has to open up its exchanges to everyone. Perhaps even AltaVista will pop up again.

However, like Humpty-Dumpty, we suspect that no amount of PR will mend its damaged reputation.

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