Beam yourself up to the Internet

Net surfers can now get a second phone line installed without high charges (or wires) attached.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The prospect of a cheap second line for dedicated Internet use arrived last week with the launch of a new kind of telephone service. Ionica uses radio signals rather than wires to connect homes into the telephone system. This means cheaper calls and, importantly, much cheaper new lines. "Our underlying costs are fundamentally lower than BT's," said Nigel Playford, Ionica's chief executive .

The company is launching its service in East Anglia and will expand to other regions over the next two years. Initial connection will cost pounds 35 compared with BT's pounds 116. This will get you a shiny new 12-inch aerial on your roof pointing at a main antenna which could be several miles away, which then connects into the telephone system. Ionica can even connect to your existing wall sockets, and you will be allowed to keep your existing number.

Call charges will be 15 per cent below BT's and several enhanced network services such as call divert, caller display and call barring will be free. Ionica will also offer a "who is it for?" service so that each telephone line can have three separate numbers with different ringing tones - one for the kids, one for the parents and, who knows, one for the dog.

Three optional features, call waiting, three-way calling and voice mail will be charged at what Ionica says are prices 20 per cent below BT's.

Importantly for Network readers, the Ionica aerial unit supports a second line that can be easily installed. The company will charge another pounds 35 for this, but the line rental for the second line falls from pounds 19.04 a quarter to pounds 14.28 compared with BT's pounds 24.79. BT charges up to pounds 116 for a second line.

A cheap second line could be a real boon for Internet-aware families. Tying up the one and only family phone line for hours does not make Net surfers popular in most homes. At present, Ionica says only around 3 per cent of UK homes have a second line.

But Ionica is being cagey about more exciting possibilities. Its service has been built to cope with ISDN, which operates at more than double the speed of today's fastest modems. It should be able to undercut BT's whopping pounds 400 charge for an ISDN line. But at launch, Mr Playford refused to be drawn. "ISDN is very important, which is why the network was designed to support it," he said. But he would not comment on reports that Ionica would be launching ISDN later this year.

Ionica's long-term plans could in theory go well beyond ISDN. Earlier this year it won a licence for high-speed data services allowing for 2 Mbit (that is 30 times faster than ISDN) fixed wireless data services. These could easily offer high-quality video links.

Ionica will not have an easy run. Its launch has been severely delayed by technical problems, and there are rumours that the system still is not performing properly. What is more, the delay has meant that Ionica must fight in a much more competitive marketplace.

"Ionica faces marketing problems just as great as its technology problems," says Adrian May, of the telecommunications consultancy Ovum. "The question is going to be, can they convince people to change? They plan to sell heavily on the ability to have a second line cheaply and eventually to offer ISDN as well. I think the reason they are being cagey about ISDN is that they are not yet sure about the technology on their network. But they certainly see it as very important."

If Ionica's performance lives up to its potential, it could give BT and the cable television companies, which are busy selling telephone services, a real run for their money. But should technical problems rear their head - if, for example, sound quality is not as good as fixed-line phones - then Ionica will face a very bumpy ride indeed.