Personal Finance: Internet Investor

BARCLAYS BANK has joined in the headlong rush to offer free Internet access, hard on the heels of a variety of Internet service providers, including, within the last seven days, two major trades unions, Unison and the MSF.

It is yet another sign that the business model of the Internet is changing rapidly as we highlighted here last month. Earlier this month, Oftel confirmed that subscription-free Internet access services can continue to operate. The telecoms watchdog defused an incipient row between British Telecom and other phone companies about the sharing of revenues from calls to the Internet.

Barclays.net will open for business in April. It is a joint venture with BT, and rides on the back of BT's new Clickfree service. There are no registration fees (Nat West, take note) and no monthly subscription fees. The call cost has been set at 4p per minute between the hours of 8am and 6pm Monday-Friday, 1.5p per minute after 6pm and before 8am, and 1p a minute over weekends.

Users of existing free Internet access services have frequently been outraged at the cost of calls to their service helplines, with minimum charges varying from 50p to pounds 1. Barclays says its technical helpline will be available at a cost of 8p per minute at peak times.

Internet access is only part of the story. Part and parcel of Barclays.net will be your ability, if you are a Barclays personal banking customer or a small business customer, to bank online. It will also include access to Barclays Stockbrokers.

Ahead of the launch of Barclays.net, the bank has been expanding the services on its existing website, with interactive screens to allow you to create a tailored portfolio.

You may recall Barclays Stockbrokers launched a trial of its real-time share-dealing service through the personal finance site, Moneyworld. That trial was brought to a rather abrupt halt, not by technical problems, but by the regulators. As an information provider, Moneyworld is not "authorised" to carry on investment business by the Financial Services Authority.

You will not be able to access Barclays.net just yet, but you can ask for a CD-rom pack to be sent to you when the service launches by calling freephone 0800 494949. Barclays is the first financial institution in the country to offer a facility that combines free Internet access with banking and stockbroking services.

Barclays: www.barclays.co.uk

Robin can be reached at RobinAmlot@aol.com

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