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@bigger.net goes belly-up

The ISPs subscribers fear that a lifetime of Internet access for just $60 will last only as long as the company making the offer.

A lifetime of Internet access for just $60 lasts only as long as the company making the offer.

At least that's what about 30,000 @bigger.net subscribers have been fearing since the Internet service provider went belly-up earlier this month.

@bigger.net filed for Chapter 7 liquidation October 13 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in San Jose, according to Chuck Greene, a bankruptcy attorney who represented the ISP through its previous financial difficulties. @bigger.net filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, but continued operating and tried to expand its service.

The company still is providing Net access under a special court order, according to Suzanne Decker, the Chapter 7 trustee handling the case. Decker said the court hopes to retain the ISP's customer base in order to eventually sell @bigger.net. As many as seven companies have expressed interest in buying its assets, she said, adding that an offer could come as soon as Friday.

The company owed about $2 million to creditors when it filed for Chapter 11 last year, and still owes more than $1.5 million, according to sources familiar with its operations.

@bigger.net offered Internet access for $59.95 plus tax as well as shipping and handling fees for a CD-ROM with the company's access software. Users were entitled to one email account for a year, with a renewal cost of $10 for each additional year. The company provided service in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California.

A message on @bigger.net's order line states "We are no longer taking orders at this time, please check back with us in the next 30 to 45 days as we build out our network." But the San Jose-based company is not building out its network any longer. Its administrative and customer service phone numbers have been disconnected, and the voice mailbox on its 24-hour technical support line was full.

Greene said he has received between 40 and 50 calls a day from disgruntled users of the service, many of whom still can access the Net but some of which are having trouble getting their email.

"There's no personnel on site," he said. "People are still connecting through bigger, but there's no human being to answer the phone, there's no tech support, and there's lots and lots of questions."

Analysts have been underwhelmed by the viability of free and one-time fee ISPs. Companies such as @bigger.net immediately faced criticism when they launched, as well as questions about how they would stay alive.

Greene said that, under @bigger.net's business model, registering 50,000 subscribers was a critical threshold to reach in order to sign large advertising contracts. The company had ambitious plans to have 200,000 customers by the end of the year, but counted only between 25,000 and 35,000 subscribers at the time of its bankruptcy.