Dial 0898 to get live video sent down the line

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THE PREMIUM-RATE telephone line is about to move into a new dimension. From next month, a change in the law will allow companies to send live video pictures direct to callers' home computers - opening up the possibility of watching sports events, checking busy traffic junctions, or even watching films over the phone.

Inevitably, the new service will also be exploited by companies looking to offer pornography, but the first applications have been from companies aiming to offer services with wider appeal which could then be viewed on a home PC.

The move by the premium-rate watchdog, ICSTIS, is likely to lead to an explosion in the number of premium-rate phone lines - already used to make 220 million calls every year in the UK.

ICSTIS says that it has already had applications from a number of companies keen to begin offering "services with a visual element" through premium- rate lines.

Previously, that was banned, but Rob Dwight of ICSTIS said that the organisation decided that "prohibition seems out of step, in view of the type of material already available online, as well as in other media." The new regulations, which ease the existing ones, come into force in April.

Allowing companies to offer digitised video, rather than just voice data, could enable those which have specialised information but cannot find a way to offer it profitably over the Internet to sell their services more efficiently.

It would also ease the fears of Internet users about their credit card details being stolen over the network, which is not secure.

"It is a big step forward for the industry," said Mr Dwight. "In general, it is good news. For the premium line operators, it means that they don't have the hassle of checking credit cards and recovering bad debts. They get paid directly by the telephone company based on the number of people ringing and the time they stay on. For the caller, they know what they're getting and how much it costs, and all they have to do is to set their computer's modem to dial in to the given number."

Among those which have expressed early interest in providing new services are broadcasting companies, which could use it to provide digital TV or films without the inconvenience of checking credit cards or worrying about piracy of smart cards. Storing the film sent digitally over the phone would require more disk space than the average computer user would have access to, so they would have to watch it at the time of use.

The move by ICSTIS will also strengthen British Telecom's hand when it applies to the Government in 2001 to be allowed to broadcast films over its telephone network. As more and more companies send video, in whatever form, over the national network, it will become harder for the Government to argue that BT should not.