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Tuesday, March 31, 1998 Published at 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK


It's good to talk for free
image: [ Consumers say neigh to being charged for local calls ]
Consumers say neigh to being charged for local calls

British Internet users have launched a campaign to end metering of phone calls, seen as one of the biggest handicaps to the growth of the Web in the UK.

Radio 5 Live's Drivetime looks at the free local calls campaign
The Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications (CUT) would like to see telephone companies offer free local calls, as in the United States and other countries.

[ image: The balloons go up for free local calls]
The balloons go up for free local calls
It launched its Website and began lobbying on Tuesday with a demonstration outside the London headquarters of Cable and Wireless Communications.

CUT has grown out of Cable and Wireless Watch, which was founded to protect the rights of consumers who had been receiving free local calls from the Videotron cable company before it was taken over by C&W.

Talk is cheap, surfing isn't

The head of Corporate Communications for Cable and Wireless, Roy Payne, told News Online that it had no plans to withdraw the service for the 3% of its customers who were still taking advantage of it. But he warned against such an offer being made nationally.

"If you look to the United States, and California as a prime example, free local calls and the advent of the Internet had a rather disastrous consequence. Because people log on to the Internet for long periods of time, it completely freezes up the network - you can't even make emergency calls," he said.

"That's the state of the technology at the moment. Currently our great concern is that a minority of people will freeze up the capacity so that other people can't make ordinary phone calls."

CUT it out

CUT says there is plenty of network capacity and phone service providers are operating old business models, considering it can now cost them as much to carry one call as a million of them. It says free local calls will benefit those on welfare and businesses, not just Internet users.

[ image: CUT founder Alastair Scott]
CUT founder Alastair Scott
"We would like to see a flat fee for calls to one number as a good starting point," said CUT's founder Alastair Scott.

"But then the campaign wants to broaden this out to all local numbers and we think that this is such an important issue that people are paying by the minute and it's putting people off using the Internet, either completely or they're using it very sketchily."

Call to OFTEL

The issue has been raised in Parliament. The Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Gerald Kaufman, interrogated Don Cruickshank, the director of Oftel, the telecommunications watchdog, last week.

Mr Kaufman said free local calls had fed the growth of the Internet in America. "Isn't that a good thing?" he asked.

But Mr Cruickshank said such free calls were actually subsidised elsewhere in the system, by additional access costs for example. However, the cost of local and national calls was converging, along with the cost of international calls, he said.

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