Most ISPs will offer you some free access time as a come-on to take their service. What you actually get when you sign up may vary from an e-mail address, through a variety of packaged news and entertainment services, to your own web space for your own home page together with help putting it together. What you pay will also vary, but standard practice is a monthly charge on top of which there may be extra costs, depending on how much use you make of the Internet connection. Do remember you are also racking up the telephone bill at the same time but it will only be at local-call rates.
Which brings me back to the virgin I mentioned. Virgin Net to be specific, which is the ISP established in November 1996 by the ubiquitous Richard Branson. Currently Virgin Net has 115,000 subscribers and claims to be the fastest growing UK Internet provider. It offers its customers all the things you would expect from an ISP, including e-mail facilities, a reasonable chunk of web space for your own use, community areas offering events and competitions, and content pitched towards news and entertainment.
And that brings me to the bank. This week Virgin Net teamed up with US banking giant Citibank in a deal that offers all new customers opening a Citibank current account free Internet access. The offer is worth a total of pounds 143.88. You may feel this is not by itself a compelling reason to take out an account with Citibank. Indeed, by no means everybody will qualify to do so. You need to be earning at least pounds 30,000 a year before they will consider you.
However, assuming you do qualify for a Citibank account, it does have several attractive features. These include competitive rates of interest on current account balances (a balance of pounds 2,000 would pay 4.75 per cent gross), free access to 18,000 ATMs across the country, a pounds 500 "no bounce" zone if you accidentally overdraw, and free, real-time PC Banking.
In fact, Citibank has been offering a PC Banking service in the UK for three years. This is not a web-based service but relies on the bank's own dial-up facility. The ISP offer announced this week comes ahead of the planned launch of Citibank's Internet banking service scheduled later in the year. However, the offer does demonstrate the seriousness of the US banking group's intent in establishing a major "virtual" presence in UK personal banking.
Thanks to the technology that enables PC- and Web-based banking services, Citibank does not need to invest in a branch network to gain market share. Peter Wilkes, marketing director of Citibank International plc comments: "Electronic transactions can reduce banking transaction costs to a fraction of their traditional level. Without the cost of a UK branch network to support, Citibank is able to pass these savings on to customers who want to take advantage of direct access channels."
If you want to find out more about the free Internet access offer, you can call the freephone number 0800 008100 and you can check out the details of Citibank's PC banking system on the bank's web site. It also has an enlightening calculator which shows just how much better off you would be with a Citibank current account compared with accounts offered by First Direct, Barclays and NatWest.