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Tuesday, 22 August, 2000, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
The revolution will not be metered

The promise of unmetered internet access sounds like a significant step forward for those who nervously eye the clock while online.

So how big a setback would it be if the pace of unmetered access slowed significantly?

With unmetered access, Britain would be on a par with the United States, Australia and other counties where paying a flat fee for internet use is commonplace.

Despite Altavista's withdrawal, around 30 internet service providers in the UK now offer some kind of free access.

The heavy cost of going online is widely believed to be stifling internet access in the UK, where about one in five people have use of the net, compared with one in two in America.
Compuserve page
Compuserve's rebate scheme - $400 off a computer of you choice
But how important is free use in spreading internet usage across the UK, as the government wants to happen?

Research by market analysts Durlacher earlier in the year said that the absence of widespread unmetered access was "dramatically slowing the growth of the UK internet economy".

The survey of 4,000 homes around the UK, found "free calls" would increase the frequency of internet access among home internet users by 46% and the duration of their internet sessions by 100%.

The fact that Altavista signed up more than a quarter of a million people to its service before it pulled the plug is one sign of the demand.

Freeserve claims to have 140,000 users on unmetered access as of August, while World Online said they had 300,000.

But many unmetered services have had to withdraw their services, or limit the number of new customers, to prevent overload of their systems.

Obstacles persist

For many, the sums do not add up. Until BT provides a full unmetered service to rival ISPs, then they will not make money by charging customers a flat rate, but having to pay BT a fee per minute.

Yet, even if unmetered access does prove viable, there are other obstacles that stand in the way of an internet-for-all future, says Nick Gibson, senior internet analyst with Durlacher.
Apple ibook
You can buy a computer for 400 or pay much more
Call charges are only the second most cited reason for keeping people offline, a bigger barrier is the cost of the hardware, he says.

"Start up costs are a big problem at the moment. You can pick up a basic, internet-ready PC for 400-500, which we believe is significantly above the price people would be likely to enter the market."

Again America appears to be ahead of Britain on this count. America Online's Compuserve offers $400 towards a new computer to users who sign up with the ISP for three years, at a subscription cost of $21.95 per month.

Tiny Computers unleashed a similar offer to Britons last summer, but it meant having to switch to Tiny's own telecom service and prove your monthly phone bills averaged at least 25. The deal came to an end in September.

Frustratingly-slow download times are also putting a lot of potential users off, says Durlacher.

Techno fear

Broadband access, which has been promised by BT and cable operators in the UK, will help to reverse that situation. But it has yet to reach the mass market and when it does will probably command a premium charge.
Dreamcast console
Sega Dreamcast - comes with modem and web browser
Techno-fear is another a stumbling block to wider internet usage, says Mr Gibson. While web browsers are straightforward to operate, computers themselves are "still exceedingly complex devices".

Until now web boxes - internet-only computers that plug into a television - have been slow to take off. But that has changed with Sega's Dreamcast games console, which comes with a modem and an internet browser.

Units sell for about 200 and Sega says it has shifted nearly two million in the US since its launch last year.

But browsing the net on a low-resolution TV screen has its drawbacks, says Matthew Bingham, editor of The Net magazine.

"It's going to take a couple more years for people to get used to the net, either through school or work. They will have to try it at and be more comfortable with it," says Mr Bingham.

Evidently there is still a long way to go before the internet is revolutionised for all our good.

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See also:

06 Mar 00 | Business
Altavista heralds net revolution
07 Dec 99 | Business
Q&A: Unmetered internet access
29 Feb 00 | Business
BT trims surfing cost
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