Freeserve shares oversubscribed 30 times

BRITAIN OFFICIALLY embraces the Internet today, with the news that shares in Freeserve, one of Britain's biggest Internet providers, have been over-subscribed by nearly 30 times.

It may prove to be a thorny embrace, however. At the same time, economists are warning that the Net's popularity may kill off another modern phenomenon - the human battery farm known as the call centre.

Sources connected to the flotation of Freeserve, the Internet arm of Dixons, the electrical retailers, said yesterday that it was "one of the hottest new issues" in recent stock market history, with staff at Credit Suisse First Boston working late into the weekend to ration the shares.

All those "netheads" already using Freeserve - estimated to be some 113,000 - who applied for the minimum pounds 250 allocation of shares will hear today that they have been successful. They will also find that the Net is a great leveller: the overwhelming demand means that it is the wealthier investors who will be disappointed. They will have their cheques refunded in the next eight days.

But an economic consultancy will issue a warning today that the growth in popularity of the worldwide web may leave Britain's 200,000 call centre workers in a precarious position. Business Strategies has launched a six- month inquiry into the impact of e-commerce on call centres, often called "human battery farms" for the intensive conditions in which many workers are housed.

Call centres have seldom been popular with consumers. But using the Internet, a company can get the customer to do the work that it would normally do itself - a concept bound to be popular with the firms.

Business, pages 13 and 17