Free Internet link offered to schools secondary schools offered

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An American company is offering free connections to the Internet to all secondary schools in the hope that pupils will persuade their parents to sign up for their home computers.

Families who buy the service will pay an average of pounds 25 per month in subscription and telephone charges. If only one child per school succeeds in selling it to his or her parents, the company will get its money back in a little more than a year.

The company, AOL, hopes half Britain's 6,000 secondary schools will take up the offer within 12 months, at a cost of about pounds 400,000. Families who buy the service will pay on average of pounds 120 a year in subscriptions plus pounds 180 in extra phone bills - the connection is made through British Telecom lines. AOL is a partnership between America Online, the world's biggest provider of on-line computer services, and the German publishing group, Bertelsmann AG.

The company offers chat lines, games and homework help with all the subjects of the National Curriculum. Users have access to the internet without paying extra charges. The company says schools will be able to link up with others in France and Germany.

Jonathan Bulkeley, AOL's managing director, said there were strong commercial reasons for making the offer."Hopefully, young Pat will use the service at school and hopefully will have been bugging his or her parents to get a computer for a while.

"They will say they can do homework on this and use it to speak French to people. Their parents will feel a bit guilty and will put their hands in their pockets and sign up," he said.

Schools that want to take up their free connections must buy a modem to use with their computer. Pupils can then use the service for the cost of a local phone call. But parents pressured into buying the service will incur extra charges. In addition to the cost of a computer and modem, they must pay pounds 5.95 for the first five hours' use each month plus pounds 1.85 for each additional hour.

BT has promised to "rewrite the Internet rule book" with the launch of dial-up services from the end of March.