Cheap calls dream is shattered

A DEAL offering low telephone call charges and the spin-off of funds for community projects for the people of Ashford and Maidstone has nosedived after less than two years. Ashford Telecom and Maidstone Telecom were pioneering projects set up by Amerada, the telecommunications division of London oil firm Amerada Hess, with the blessing of the two borough councils.

The plan, put forward in a home-delivered leaflet, was to provide free local calls and Internet access, and reduced international rates. Profits made from providing e-commerce packages for shops and businesses, allowing customers to shop online, were to be ploughed back into the local community.

But the take-up rate never achieved targets. On March 1, the parent company sold off Amerada to the giant American energy conglomerate TXU, which decided to discontinue the two Telecom projects. It has said has said that customers will not lose out.

Jennifer Blownlee, Amerada marketing manager, said they proved incapable of competing with major telephone companies such as British Telecom. She said: "The fact of the matter is that not as many people came forward as had been hoped."

In its first year of operation, Maidstone Telecom provided almost £12,000 for community use. In Ashford, council leader Paul Clokie admitted "the deal was too good to be true", but said that the council had not lost money. "Not every good idea comes off and we are certainly disappointed. In the future we will be more cautious," he said.

When the deal was signed in January 2001, Ashford Telecom's chief executive Jonathon Thorne, who lives in Charing, said: "I am very confident that we will reach the target of 8,000 connections by the end of the first year." It made less than half that.

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