Dixons offers `free' Internet use

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Dixons, the high street retailer, yesterday announced a new Internet access service that is ostensibly free - but will cost more than premium- rate sex lines to any users who need technical support.

The new service, called Freeserve, also drew complaints from rivals who charge an average of pounds 12 per month to provide access. They claimed it could lead to the proliferation of pornography and electronic junk mail sent over the Net.

But it could also trigger a "commoditisation" of Internet access, making it akin to the market for instant coffee - where almost indistinguishable brands compete for primacy while offering a service to which the user adds a simple ingredient. For coffee, it is hot water; for the Internet, a PC.

Freeserve will be available via free CD-ROMs distributed through the Dixons chain of more than 1,000 stores, which also include Currys, PC World and The Link. The company says its primary target is home and small business users, a market for which it already provides 60 per cent of PCs.

John Clare, Dixons' chief executive, said: "Freeserve users will not pay a penny for their Internet access other than the call they make."

He described the service as "a foothold in the online market" for Dixons, adding: "By removing the monthly subscription charges we believe that Freeserve will revolutionise the Internet service market and drive up Internet use."

The software will initially be available only for PCs and uses Microsoft programming. Telephone support will cost pounds 1 per minute, far more than other Internet service providers.

Dixons said there would be income, in time, from electronic commerce, advertising and sponsorship of the Freeserve Web site, and telephone revenues from its partner Energis.