Client: AOL UK
Campaign: Stop the Clock - the campaign for unmetered internet
PR Team: In-house and Regester Larkin
Timescale: February 1999 - ongoing
Budget: Part of overall UK and pan-European corporate communications
AOL UK is an internet service provider whose subscribers often log on
when telephone tariffs are at their peak. Once the UK’s leading ISP, it
has faced serious competition from Dixon’s Freeserve.
At the beginning of 1999, AOL began questioning UK internet access
It argued that the direct correlation between internet usage and
e-commerce revenue meant metered or pay-per-minute on-line access
penalised consumers and the UK’s economic potential. AOL wanted to allow
its customers to pay a basic flat rate for its service and to compete
with other ISPs on content and service levels.
The issue of telephone charges and BT’s grip on the market came to a
head this year. Telecoms regulator Oftel received a complaint from US
company MCI Worldcom that BT had rejected its request for a wholesale
unmetered internet access service, while planning to launch its own
unmetered service, Surftime, on 1 June. AOL has stepped up its efforts
to communicate the need for a fairer, streamlined system.
To persuade the public, the industry and Oftel that there should be a
switch from metered to flat-rate phone line charges.
Strategy and Plan
Last February, AOL UK and its corporate reputation agency Regester
Larkin began exploring the issue of internet access charges with key
business correspondents and IT specialists in the media. They focused on
explaining why unmetered rates mattered, how change could be achieved
and the implications for the future of the UK’s internet economy.
AOL linked with pressure groups, including the Campaign for Unmetered
Telecommunications, to ensure that it was in touch with consumers. Last
June it surveyed 11,000 customers and discovered that 92 per cent
spontaneously identified phone costs as the biggest single obstacle to
spending more time on-line.
It was vital to get the regulator and UK and European policy makers on
board. AOL Europe’s general counsel Claire Gilbert created a business
model of flat-rate internet access which the PR team used to explain its
case to Oftel and lobby key politicians.
Over the past 18 months, AOL has also communicated the benefits of
unmetered internet access charges to its own industry at functions and
AOL Europe chief, Andreas Schmidt, urged business leaders to join the
campaign at the Jupiter Consumer Online Forum in October.
Measurement and evaluation
AOL UK used media analysis companies, including Metrica, to track and
measure the impact of its messages on consumers and business
AOL was mentioned in a large proportion of the media coverage. A key
milestone came last October, when the Times moved coverage of internet
access charges from its business pages to the core news agenda and
launched its ’Free the Net’ crusade.
AOL evaluated consumer reactions using its on-line notice boards and
usage figures. In the four months following the launch of its 1p per
minute flat-rate phone tariff in September, AOL’s traffic more than
On 26 May, Oftel ordered BT to allow competitors to use its network to
sell unmetered net access in direct competition to BT’s Surftime. AOL is
currently working to accelerate the date from which it can offer
lower-cost flat-rate internet access plans in the UK.