Network: BT is free at last - for those who pay

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but the launch of the 0800 access number undercut a Europe-wide Internet boycott.
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The UK Internet market took a small - but very important - step forward last week. On Saturday, BT for the first time began to provide limited, free access to the Internet via an 0800 telephone number.

There are a few strings attached, of course. Internet access isn't completely free because the 0800 number is only available if you subscribe to BT Internet's Plan Unlimited scheme, which costs pounds 11.75 per month. Even then, you can only use the 0800 number at weekends, between midnight on Friday and Sunday. None the less, this is a major step forward for the UK's hidebound and conservative telecommunications industry.

The UK's use of the Internet still lags far behind the US because american consumers benefit from free local telephone calls. This means that Internet users can afford to log on and browse the Internet for hours at a time. But in the UK, new Internet businesses, such as online games and e-commerce, are struggling to make money because we have to ration our Internet use in order to avoid huge phone bills.

Even the arrival of free Internet service providers, such as Dixons FreeServe, has done little to change this situation. After all, a saving of pounds 10 to pounds 15 a month on ISP subscription fees is nothing compared with the size of the sort of telephone bills that dedicated Web users can run up each and every month.

Of course, BT Internet's weekend-only offer isn't going to revolutionise Internet use overnight. But it is an encouraging sign, and the hope is that it is the beginning of a more radical change that will affect the entire UK Internet market.

BT isn't known for being particularly forward-thinking when it comes to adopting new technologies or business models. An organisation called CUT (Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications) has been lobbying for free local calls in the UK for some time, but BT has always dismissed this by arguing that "there's no such thing as a free lunch".

So BT Internet's move seems like a major U-turn. Spokesman David Pincott denies this, though. "It's not about local calls," he argues. Local calls still cost money, and it's only the 0800 Internet number that is free. He also points out that 0800 numbers aren't truly free, either, as they have to be paid for by the companies that run them.

BT Internet's position as a subsidiary of BT would, therefore, seem to give it an unfair advantage, but Pincott insists that the service isn't subsidised by BT. The plan is that the new 0800 number "will generate extra business and attract more users to the Internet". These new users will, he hopes, also use the Internet during the week, when they are paying for their calls. It is these charged calls that will pay for the free weekend calls.

The timing of BT's announcement is significant, though. CUT organised the UK's involvement in a Europe-wide Web "boycott" planned for yesterday. Internet users in 14 European countries were encouraged to boycott the Internet for a day, and owners of websites were asked to put up pages declaring their support for the boycott.

Opening the new 0800 line the day before pretty much ensured that thousands of BT Internet subscribers would ignore the boycott and make the most of their free calls.

Another important factor has been the recent arrival of Scream, an Internet service provider set up in collaboration with the LocalTel telephone company.

LocalTel offers free calls to during evenings and weekends in order to encourage BT customers to switch to LocalTel's service. LocalTel wouldn't say exactly how many new subscribers it has signed up, but it claims that BT is now taking more than four weeks to process the backlog of customers who've applied to switch over from BT.

The question now is whether BT's move will force other Internet service providers to offer free calls as well. A spokesman for AOL said: "We welcome anything that moves the UK towards unmetered use of the Internet." AOL is reportedly has an 0800 phone number of its own in trials.

There are also rumours that LineOne is about to announce an 0800 service as well.

It's not clear if any of these companies can actually make any money by providing free access calls, but competition in this market is so fierce that it is only a matter of time before other service providers follow BT's lead.

One way or another, it looks as if the Internet market is in for another big shake-up.

Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications (http://www.unme European Telecom Boycott homepage (http://www.tele