AltaVista exposed

Questions, questions, questions...

The Free Internet Group's (TFIG) High Court claim has lifted the lid on AltaVista's delayed bid to offer unmetered access to the Net earlier this year.

Aside from whether the allegations are true or not - that will be for the court to decide if it gets that far - the claim documents the steps leading up to AltaVista's public launch and unprecedented press coverage.

In March, the Californian company won the backing of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, at a time when the pressure for unmetered Net access was at an all-time high.

The story held centre stage for the BBC's top news programmes including Today and Newsnight.

And even Britain's tabloid newspapers - which usually reserve their front pages for more lurid or scandalous content - sang AltaVista's praises.

This legal action gives Net industry watchers an opportunity to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of events that left many scratching their heads over Alta Vista's actions.

Originally, news of Alta Vista's plans to offer cheap, unmetered access to the Net hit the headlines around the 4th or 5th of March. What's now clear is that the service could have gone live the week before, but for "technical" reasons it didn't.

If this is the case and AltaVista had concerns about TFIG, then why did it proceed with a major PR offensive when it was fully aware it couldn't deliver?

What's more, why did Alta Vista's top man in the UK, Andy Mitchell, tell The Register that Alta Vista had no telco or ISP in place to support the service?

Yet according to TFIG, both companies had already signed a contract to offer the service.

Equally, what reservations did Alta Vista have about TGIF? According to a letter published in the High Court claim, AltaVista had fears "regarding quality and technical issues". It appears to have rapidly lost faith in TFIG's staffing levels and technical expertise.

But is this the true reason why AltaVista pulled back form the deal? And if so, why weren't these issued raised during negotiations? Or are there other forces at work?

Interest in AltaVista - and its virtual silence following its deafening launch - has grown exactly because there are so many unanswered questions.

Speculation over the past months about AltaVista has ranged from those who suggested the e-outfit was about to ditch its plans to offer an ISP, to those who maintained the March launch was merely a publicity stunt aimed at boosting interest in a float.

More recently, of course, it has found its voice again with the announcement that it is to offer Net access based on the wholesale unmetered product, FRIACO, at the end of the month.

Except now, Alta Vista has the threat of legal action hanging over its June 30th launch. ®

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