Waitrose slams AltaVista ‘free’ ISP

Waitrose chief Mark Price issues warning over AltaVista’s pricing initiative for unmetered Net access.

Mark Price, marketing director of Waitrose and the man behind Waitrose.com, has slammed AltaVista’s move to offer unmetered Internet access.

Price claims the headline-grabbing initiative, which follows AltaVista’s huge success with a free Internet service provider (ISP) in the US, is “not as straightforward as people think”.

He bases his assertion on the fact that the average UK Net user still spends a relatively small amount of time online, paying an estimated annual phone cost of £50 to £60.

This may end up being the same, or even less than, AltaVista’s proposed £30 to £50 annual bill in year one. “There will be a large proportion of people for whom it won’t be worth switching to AltaVista.”

Price also argues that by the time AltaVista launches its service in June, BT will have followed suit by offering its own unmetered service. “Consumers should tread very carefully and make sure they are not going to get locked into a long-term commitment with AltaVista when they could be getting the same service or better from another telecoms provider.

“We need to know more from AltaVista about its proposed pricing structure and whether, for example, it will be charging for technical support.”

AltaVista parent CMGI recently stated its belief in the power of an advertising-fuelled Net, but many in the UK remain sceptical. “Advertising online is still not a huge revenue generator,” says Price. “You’ve got to get a colossal number of hits in order to justify it. I just can’t see how people are going to make a fortune from advertising on the Net.”

Waitrose.com has been offering its own ISP service since September and claims to have 37,000 customers, with about 2,000 joining each week.

It also claims two unique service propositions: technical and helpline support through an 0800 number and donating all of its profit to charity.

Although a relative latecomer to the Net compared with the likes of Tesco and Iceland, Waitrose has been running fast to catch up.

This week it has announced a wireless application protocol (WAP) initiative that will allow customers to make distress purchases using WAP-enabled mobile phones.

US telecoms company NTL is hoping to trump AltaVista by offering a “genuinely free, unlimited access” Internet package from April 17. It will be branded ntlworld. “NTL has a vision to bring the Internet to all UK homes, either through the PC or the TV,” says NTL chief executive Barclay Knapp.

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