How giants squash the online ambitions of small businesses

Small firms are being denied the Internet access they require by restrictive BT packages

Small firms are being denied the Internet access they require by restrictive BT packages

Some months ago Bob Rowland, owner of the Battlesteads in rural Wark, Northumberland, opened a BT Openworld account thinking this would give him unrestricted access to the Internet. The account was in the name of the Battlesteads Hotel.

Rowland is not an excessive Internet user, he is too busy running his award-winning country hotel and restaurant. BT recently wrote to the hotelier to say his constant use of the Internet was unacceptable and that the account was not intended for business use. Not that this stopped BT from accepting payment from Rowland, of course.

BT has been at the forefront of encouraging Internet use (for obvious reasons) in recent years, and its advertising constantly refers to 24-hour access to the Internet. In October, the first warning arrived that Rowland was "over-using" the Internet. In November the second warning came and, within a day, Rowland's Web site and e-mail address were history - they disappeared without trace.

As you can imagine, life for small businesses based in areas affected by foot and mouth restrictions is pretty grim and Rowland depends heavily on the Internet for new business. After having ruthlessly killed off his new business channel for "excessive" use of the service contrary to the small print, BT advised the hotelier to consider broadband or BT Connect Anytime as being "more suitable to his needs".

This is an interesting proposition as Wark is part of the 40% of the UK that BT has recently admitted that it cannot provide with a broadband service.

I looked at the small print of BT's Openworld terms and it does say that customers should not stay online for more than 16 hours a day, so I decided to look up the terms and conditions of the Connect Anytime service BT recommends in its e-mail as being more suitable.

Here's an extract from the terms, "if you are a user of an unmetered service (as opposed to Pay As You Go), you should limit online sessions during unmetered access periods to two hours. To maintain the quality of the service to you and other customers, we reserve the right without notice to impose physical limits to ensure online sessions do not exceed two hours and/or to ensure periods of inactivity do not exceed 20 minutes."

In other words, BT was actually recommending a service with even more harsh restrictions than the one the customer was using and surely completely unsuited to serious business use. How long would it have been before BT chopped Rowland off again?

It offered him a consolation in its e-mail: "I can for the time being reinstate your account under the Pay As You Go option to receive e-mails, but the Web space is only 10Mbytes, so I am not sure if this will be big enough for your needs."

None of which would help the fact that hundreds of search engines across the world are now pointing to empty space.

The reason Rowland stays online is because his online booking system does a quick check for updates at regular intervals throughout the day.

You can imagine that, even with minimum call charges, BT would certainly make a killing if Rowland had to ring up every time to check.

None of this is news, as headlines along the lines of "BT Openworld attacked for terminating Anytime accounts" appear regularly these days. A quick look around the Web will show that many people are dissatisfied with the service.

But to openly invite a business customer to transfer to a more expensive service which has the same or greater restrictions surely has to be indefensible?

Meanwhile, I have heard of members of the Federation of Small Businesses being told they need to order a line before BT will tell them if they can have ADSL. I remember clearly before moving into the country myself, asking if the telecoms giant would be able to supply its Home Highway service at my new address, only to be told that I would have to place the order for the line before it would tell me if it would support the ISDN link.

This is not the way to endear oneself to small business. But then, what is one small business customer? There are plenty of others.

Peter Scargill is national IT chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses

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