BBC bids to lead online world with free service

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The Independent Online
BBC WORLDWIDE yesterday signalled its ambition to be one of the world's biggest Internet players by launching, a free Internet access service to compete with Dixon's Freeserve.

"Freebeeb will provide a united front for all of BBC internet content," said Rupert Miles, director of "People will be able to use it to help their children with revision, to check out what is happening in East Timor or to take part in a car chase on Top Gear."

BBC executives admitted the new service is intended to bring together and enhance the BBC's internet presence - it already has the most popular websites in Europe. But they would not comment on increasing pressure for the BBC to float off its Internet services to generate revenue.

"The BBC's Internet business could be worth anything upwards of pounds 1bn, and could provide the corporation with a huge injection of cash," a City analyst said.

One BBC Internet executive said last week he had been told that in equity terms, the Internet services were now worth as much as the rest of the BBC put together.

The BBC is working with Scottish Telecom on the new service. "These two co-operating is a sign that the BBC is playing big," said the media analyst. "Scottish Telecom already owns Demon Internet which is the second largest web host in Britain and the fourth largest in the world."

The BBC is, Rupert Miles said, spending "many millions" of pounds on marketing Freebeeb. It has done a deal with the Post Office, which will hand out free discs to potential users, and will also promote it through BBC magazines, including Radio Times, which "are read by a quarter of the population".

Mr Miles said: "There is a huge amount of people who, despite a maelstrom of free CDs and carpetbombing by AOL in the UK, have yet to make the relatively simple step of signing on to the Internet. There is clear evidence of consumer concern and confusion."

The BBC is convinced that it can tap into the five million homes which have a PC but no Internet connection, and persuade people that they have the simplest product on the market.

The service seems certain to cause controversy among BBC competitors who regularly complain that the corporation maintains too close a relationship between its licence fee funded and commercial activities.

BBC Worldwide said yesterday that Freebeeb's homepage will not take advertising - but will provide access to both commercial and public service sites.