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AltaVistaGate: Mitchell admits he mislead US bosses

When will this sorry affair end?

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Andy Mitchell, the forlorn MD of AltaVista UK and Ireland, has admitted that not only did he confuse and mislead his consumers here in Britain about his fictitious ISP, he also fooled his US bosses.

The result of this charade is that AltaVista's CEO, Rod Schrock, went on TV saying the service was being used by umpteen thousand happy punters.

Which TV station and when is not disclosed. But someone somewhere has a transcript - or the tape - of Schrock (unknowingly, so Mitchell says) giving misleading information about AltaVista's unmetered Net access service in the UK.

Mitchell writes: "I made the decision to delay the rollout and, subsequently, put on hold the service. I am remiss in not informing you (or my management) earlier about this situation. In fact, regrettably, during a television interview AltaVista's CEO erroneously referred to an estimated number of users expected to have been signed up for the service based on our capacity and projection for the service roll out at that time. He, too, understood that our service was operating."

This is damning stuff, not just for Mitchell but for Schrock too.

Sure, Schrock may have talked-up his UK ISP in all innocence, but this latest admission is further proof of the shambolic goings-on at AltaVista UK and poses severe questions about the inner workings of AltaVista as a whole.

All credit to Mitchell for accepting responsibility and taking this fairly and squarely on his chin. Unfortunately, by accepting full responsibility for the cock-up, by admitting that he kept it from his superiors, Mitchell has effectively signed his own leaving card.

But are we really to be expected to believe that AltaVista UK failed to tell its corporate colleagues in the US about its decision not to roll out the service? That it worked so independently and so secretively that it kept its corporate colleagues in the dark over the affair?

Are we expected to believe no one at AltaVista in the US picked up the phone - or emailed - the British outpost to see how the "groundbreaking" service was progressing following the June 30 launch?

Were channels of communication so bad between the UK and the US that neither side spoke to one another?

To read the full text of Mitchell's letter go here. It's well worth the effort since he also sheds a little light on why he ditched AltaVista's original ISP partner, The Free Internet Group, a move that is now subject to legal proceedings. He also contradicts earlier reports about how many users each month could have been signed up to the service. Oh, and he bangs on about FRIACO too.

If, for whatever technical reason, the link breaks down or something, here's a copy of the letter below. ®

Message from Andy Mitchell

I apologise to all who feel let down by AltaVista's decision to put our unmetered Internet service on hold. I have made mistakes throughout this episode, especially in terms of my poor communication with you, and I apologise for any confusion or inconvenience.

AltaVista is passionate about the importance of reducing the high cost of Internet access in the UK. Many studies have documented this as the single greatest obstacle deterring people from spending time online. We remain steadfast in our championing of the need for low-cost Internet access in Britain.

From the day we developed the concept of unmetered UK Internet access provided by AltaVista, we have been working hard to deliver it. However, we developed serious concerns about our initial Internet service provider's ability to supply a satisfactory service due to technical issues and business principles that had arisen.

We worked fast to find an alternative supplier, and explored other ways to launch a low-cost service. We supported MCI WorldCom in its lobbying of Oftel to secure open-market access to flat rate interconnect bandwidth - a campaign which eventually led to Oftel's ruling on Flat Rate Internet Access Call Origination, called FRIACO, which is the UK telecom-pricing regime for flat-rate Internet access.

At the end of June, we had been prepared to start rolling out the service to 30,000 customers per month. However, we became concerned about FRIACO, on which delivery of the unmetered service depended. We couldn't risk launching a service until fully unmetered FRIACO lines were widely available. Subsequently, we decided not to take subscription fees if there was a danger that we might have to cancel the service.

I made the decision to delay the rollout and, subsequently, put on hold the service. I am remiss in not informing you (or my management) earlier about this situation. In fact, regrettably, during a television interview AltaVista's CEO erroneously referred to an estimated number of users expected to have been signed up for the service based on our capacity and projection for the service roll out at that time. He, too, understood that our service was operating.

Like other organizations (sic)that have bailed out before us, we see no way at this time to provide a competitive product. The FRIACO issue has left the marketplace in disarray, and the UK is more dependent than ever on Oftel to level the playing field.

We will continue to lobby and bring pressure to bear on all interested and influencing parties, until a truly unmetered access service is available across the UK. In the meantime, I will be focusing our efforts on our world-leading search engine, to ensure that customers get the quality service they expect from AltaVista.

Kind Regards

Andy Mitchell
Managing Director
AltaVista UK

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