Column: Clear ISP launch stands to benefit from Xtra troubles

Watching closely, and gleefully, the up and down fortunes of Telecom ISP Xtra has been arch-rival Clear Communications.

Watching closely, and gleefully, the up and down fortunes of Telecom ISP Xtra has been arch-rival Clear Communications.

Clear’s own Internet offering is scheduled for launch sometime this quarter. The telco has about 40 staff working full-time on the project. The Web site for the ISP--which will, like Xtra, be run as a separate company--is being developed by Terabyte.

However, Clear is not, as some speculation has suggested, buying an existing ISP, says general manager of corporate communications Janiene Bayliss. Nor is Clear offering the service in alliance with any other company.

There’s still no word though on exactly when the service will be launched. Clear is currently recruiting staff such as help desk personnel--usually hired reasonably close to launch--and it is likely to want to avoid the new service being buried in the hurly-burly of the pre-Christmas silly season.

And, of course, Clear’s Internet service will tie in with the ventures of two shareholders, British Telecom and MCI, which are to launch dial and dedicated Net access services, called Concert InternetPlus, internationally in October.

In other words, the signs are pointing to a late October or early November launch.

Clear has said all along that it intends to push its Internet offering aggressively, seeing the Internet as its first big market opportunity that Telecom hadn’t already staked out. Until the blizzard of bad publicity about Xtra over the past fortnight, that strategy was starting to look a little forlorn.

Xtra seemed like a model of how to launch an ISP. Despite a widespread belief in the Internet community that Telecom didn’t understand the Internet and would fall flat on its face, the service quickly gained 10,000 users.

But the well publicised problems of recent weeks have left Xtra with a fair splattering of omelette sur le visage. While the ISP still has a hell of a lot going for it, the magnitude of the own goal can be measured by asking this simple question: what is your typical, non-techhead, business manager’s biggest paranoia about the Internet?

The answer of course: security. And where’s the most lucrative potential for Xtra? Electronic commerce.

Whoops.

Of course, other ISPs are not immune to security lapses--note police investigations into security breaches and possible fraud at four different ISPs last week.

Nevertheless, that does give Clear a bit more of an opening. And with the power of that BT-MCI connection behind it, be prepared for Clear to make quite a splash.

Meanwhile BellSouth’s Internet plans are in the pipeline, although the company will not be setting up an ISP of its own, says communications manager James Norman.

BellSouth’s GSM technology means users can receive email on mobile handsets, and Norman suggests it is this that fuelled speculation earlier this year that an Internet service was imminent.

Internet links would seem to be a natural part of the company’s PCS offering, due for launch early next year, but Norman says that’s not necessarily so.

“PCS is a journey, not a destination. We’ve always been a PCS company, and its a question of when you go the next step.”

(Hosking is Computerworld’s telecommunications specialist. He can be contacted by email at rob_hosking@idg.com.)

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