Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications

FRIACO FAQ (28 May 2000)

We have followed the saga of BT SurfTime, which promised true unmetered Internet access at a cost, over the past eight months. A counter-proposal to BT SurfTime, which we kicked off and which will considerably undercut BT SurfTime, has been approved by OFTEL. Its rather ugly name, FRIACO, should not put you off, and we offer a FAQ to explain what it's about.

What is FRIACO?

It is Flat Rate Internet Access Call Origination; a complete solution for unmetered Internet access.

It will be available at all telephone exchanges capable of supporting BT SurfTime on 1 June 2000.

It has three parts. Simplifying somewhat:

  • To give your Internet Service Provider access to you BT leases a port, which will typically accommodate six to twelve dialup users, for just over £400pa.

  • To give your ISP access to the wider Internet it buys into a number of competing bandwidth operators offering wholesale access through FRIACO.

  • Your ISP ties these together.
Our rough calculations are that FRIACO will cost your ISP 60 to 80 per cent less than BT SurfTime, with £60pa being a reasonable estimate of how much it will cost an ISP to support a user; it may well be possible to have economically viable Internet access at zero cost (supported by advertising).

Never forget that, before BT SurfTime or FRIACO, the access to you was metered and your ISP had to try to disguise that metering ... somehow.

Why was FRIACO developed?

As a complete solution to the problem of delivering unmetered Internet access at reasonable cost in the United Kingdom.

The main sticking point with BT SurfTime was that both directions were controlled by BT: also, it was being sold by BT as a retail product with a complicated interaction between your ISP and BT and awkward billing, as explained below.

This led to competitive wholesale access, rather than monopolistic retail access, being worked out at our request by AOL and MCI WorldCom, and OFTEL becoming involved as it had advised us it would do if someone developed a costed and viable alternative to BT SurfTime.

Why were there almost no BT SurfTime-based services announced by ISPs?

  • Economic: BT SurfTime was too expensive for them and, as a result, almost all were waiting for the FRIACO determination.

  • Logistic: dual billing was universally considered to be an administrative morass, quite apart from two payments for one service being absurd. (Dual billing involved BT billing for the 'access' part of SurfTime, the charge appearing on your 'blue bill', and the ISP, or BT on the ISP's behalf, billing for the 'ISP' part either by Direct Debit or similar or on the 'blue bill').

  • Monopolistic: BT SurfTime was seen as too obvious an attempt by BT to protect its interests, shutting out other bandwidth operators and thus denying choice.
The ISPs we know of which are offering BT SurfTime-related services are BT Internet, Freeserve and PlusNet.

What is the future of BT SurfTime?

We don't know what it will be; in the long term it may have no future outside BT services.

What will happen to existing unmetered Internet access?

Again, we don't know. However, as FRIACO is technically superior to the ad hoc solutions that have been dotted around so far, we hope that the connection problems and other difficulties people have experienced will gradually die away. It may well be that most existing services migrate to FRIACO.

What about voice?

There is nothing stopping FRIACO being used for specialised IP services other than plain Internet access, such as voice over IP. We'll be asking people whether they want it for (switched) telephony.

Why was the OFTEL determination so late?

BT SurfTime was due to be launched on 1 June 2000 yet OFTEL delayed until 26 May before making its determination on FRIACO: we suspect that the delay was due to BT fighting FRIACO all the way. The short timescale is not as serious a problem as it may seem because FRIACO is designed so that the network capacity and infrastructure ordered by various organisations to support BT SurfTime can be easily switched to it.

We also suspect that OFTEL left the determination so late - on the Friday evening before a Bank Holiday - so that everyone could run with it for three days before BT was able to make any formal response :)

Where did CUT come in?

Through changing OFTEL's view of the world and providing the link between OFTEL and the Department of Trade and Industry, and AOL and MCI WorldCom who developed FRIACO. Remember that, a year ago, OFTEL was arguing that unmetered Internet access was not feasible! We knew we were making progress when OFTEL started using 'unmetered' and began regular meetings with us.

We thank AOL, OFTEL and MCI WorldCom for their efforts.

Where does CUT go from here?

TBD. However, one thing very clear is that FRIACO can be sold as a solution to other countries, so we will start visiting campaigners elsewhere soon.

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