It's not Tony who's getting us online

Internet usage won't boom because of Tony Blair's funfairs or wired buses
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The Independent Online

A while ago, much to the amusement of the Net community, Al Gore claimed that he had invented the internet. Luckily, Al's delusion of grandeur passed, thanks to the violent pounding he got from the thousands of people who were there in the early days of the Net and distinctly remembered otherwise.

A while ago, much to the amusement of the Net community, Al Gore claimed that he had invented the internet. Luckily, Al's delusion of grandeur passed, thanks to the violent pounding he got from the thousands of people who were there in the early days of the Net and distinctly remembered otherwise.

It seems our own government doesn't want to be left behind our American cousins when it comes to such absurd posturing. Tony Blair, as a part of his UK Online initiative, last week claimed that the Government had met its target of getting 350,000 small businesses online. He also claimed that the Government had a hand in the fact that 30 per cent of us have an internet connection; nine out of 10 people in the UK are working in companies connected to the Net; and we are the largest bunch of online shoppers in Europe.

The Government, apparently not sufficiently pleased with its "achieved targets", is now aiming to roll out 600 free Net access centres, including funfair cybercafés and a wired bus designed to tour the country and provide Net access to those in need.

Great as it sounds, the Government doesn't seem to realise that many cybercafés launched free internet access months ago. Free access in the cafés is sponsored by local business, which sees benefits from providing the service in exchange for the cafés promoting their e-shops or portals.

It seems puzzling that while the Prime Minister refuses to budge on petrol prices, he is willing to spend £1bn of taxpayers' money to finance a free public access initiative that's been pretty much implemented without the Government's help.

The problem is that some fundamental assumptions in the Government's thinking are flawed - the reason why as many as 30 per cent of us have got access to the internet is that the UK has deregulated its Net access early and successfully. Blair's government has contributed to the high numbers of Net users in the UK in very much the same way as Al Gore invented the internet. In both countries the deregulated market allowed small start-ups like Demon or Easynet to get a foot in the door and provide access at very low cost. In both countries, the driving force was the ability of keen, interested and technically skilled people to create small ISPs in their garden shed and offer connectivity, competing with BT and winning the customers along the way.

Deregulation has also allowed retailers to offer value-added ISP services to their customers, and to provide help in getting online to the many people who they reach daily in their stores. The fact that we have such a fantastic online user base is mainly due to the dedicated, passionate staff in the shops who are inspiring their customers and telling them about the advantages and attractions of the wired world.

The biggest UK internet provider has grown its two-million user base thanks to that army of shop assistants-turned-evangelists, who were by no means paid by or related to the Government's initiative. It is insensitive and simply wrong for Tony Blair to claim credit where it is not due. Deregulation was inherited by this government, and it simply ran with it.

The Government seems incapable of learning from that lesson and instead of promoting deregulation by pushing BT to provide unmetered access to other ISPs, it is sitting on the fence. It has been demonstrated that in the current framework, even the ISPs with the deepest pockets have had to suspend their free internet offer, owing to the lack of support from BT.

A big increase in the number of internet users won't happen because of Tony Blair's funfairs or wired buses, but rather because of the availability of completely free access, which will drive demand and lower prices of computers to a very low level.

The Government means well but is pushing in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to behave like a nanny, it should just free the market's hand and let it play out the full, free internet scenario. It could press Oftel to apply pressure on BT, to force it to allow competition. But regrettably, Oftel doesn't have any teeth.

The most outrageous example of this is the fact that BT has been allowed to sell its broadband internet service to home-based consumers without allowing other ISPs to provide me with a competing offer. That means an ADSL connection costs a staggering £40 per month, much more than what it costs in the US, where ADSL provision was deregulated a few years ago.

The question is: why is the Government spending taxpayers' money to create something that has already been provided by the market? If you are as confused as I am, write to the Government at ukonline@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk and see how long it takes to receive an e-mail back. In my case, I'm still waiting.

18 September 2000

eva@never.com

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