AOL hot on Freeserve's heels

Or is it? And at what price?

AOL claims to be on the brink of deposing Freeserve from its top slot as number one ISP in Britain. Andreas Schmidt, AOL Europe's head man, said that AOL's British concerns -- AOL, CompuServe and Netscape Online -- had a combined membership of some 1.6 million active users. Freeserve has just 75,000 more users, which means if it can't feel the hot air of AOL breathing on its neck then it should. Interestingly, Freeserve doesn't seem to be all that bothered. Far from getting worked up about it, a spokesman for the Dixons spin-off questioned the validity of AOL's data. "AOL is not being specific enough," he said. "Some of the figures need to be qualified... they need clarification." As you'd expect, AOL denied that the figures were inflated in any way claiming that they represented active users within the last 40 days. "We couldn't get away with making them up," said an AOL spokeswoman. So is Freeserve accusing the chairman of AOL Europe of telling porkies? Who knows? Who cares? If AOL has to quote the combined resources of three ISPs just to try and score a PR point over Freeserve, then good luck to them. As far as the figures make out, CompuServe (400,000 users) and Netscape Online (400,000 users) have not bothered the actuaries for some time now. Only AOL -- which has been at the centre of a massive PR and ad campaign publicising its 1p a minute offer for Net access -- has shown any sign of progress. AOL wouldn't say how much this latest campaign has cost, but you can bet it's a fair old whack -- and all for an extra 200,000 users. Only those within AOL will know if it's money well spent. Elsewhere, AOL has described weekend press reports that AOL Inc is looking to buy Bertelsmann's 50 per cent stake in AOL Europe as "pure market speculation". ®

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