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  • Why metering is wrong for the consumer

    In this country home Internet access is almost exclusively through metered local telephone calls to an Internet Service Provider. This column explains why metered Internet access is bad.

    The minimum call charge is unfair

    As well as being metered, every call which connects is subject to the minimum call charge - even if the call is quickly disconnected because of a failure at the other end. This charge cannot possibly be defended. Imagine having to pay the minimum call charge if you rang an engaged or unobtainable number!

    Metering is unfair

    There are four main problems with metering Internet access:

    • There's no consideration of the line and connection quality: the speed of data transfer can fluctuate so that something which takes, say, 10 minutes on a good day could take 30 minutes on a bad day. You have no control over this.

    • There's no consideration of the session quality: if you're doing a 90-minute download and the connection drops after 89 minutes that 89 minutes was completely wasted, again through no fault of your own, yet has to be paid for.

    • You're paying by time; most of that time your connection is idle (doing nothing), so you're paying for nothing.

    • Metering discourages anything more than superficial Internet use.

    On the last point:

    • People on low incomes cannot afford to access the Internet. We know of many people who bought a computer with a redundancy payment, decided they wanted to get on to the Internet to help improve their skills, worked out the costs - then gave up in disgust.

    • Business facilities such as advertising and promotional sites, product support, home shopping and home banking are hamstrung. How can an advertiser expect to get a return on their investment if many people browse sites with graphics turned off, to save time downloading pages, and never see the adverts?

    • Looking for a job costs too much: the Web sites of employers and recruitment agencies demand a lot of searching and form-filling while the clock is ticking.

    • Teleworking is hopelessly expensive, especially during the day; few companies can afford dialback or 0800 access numbers.

    • Educational and academic sites and access to online media cost too much; browsing and searching takes time and costs money.

    • Interactive entertainment such as online games and chat (a lifeline, in particular, to the deaf and housebound) is stymied.

    • Minorities find the Internet a safe haven: there are many excellent Web sites which, at an extreme, could save lives - yet might as well not exist if those who need them cannot afford to access them.

    • Methods of installing software through the Internet, such as Active Setup, are becoming more and more tied to the PC on which the software is to be installed - if you want to install something at home it has to be downloaded at home.

    • More and more software is assuming that an Internet connection is present, Windows 98 being an obvious example.

    So why are things as they are?

    Telecommunications operators, it would seem, are ignoring the fact that data calls, rather than voice calls, are a new way of using the telephone so require new charging schemes.

    Instead, they stick with metering by time because they can get away with it - although that will change.

    Fairer charging

    The list is by no means exhaustive: there is nothing to stop combinations of these methods being used, and individual subscribers should be able to choose between different methods depending on their needs.

    • Unmetered calls, where calls are metered neither by time nor by data.

    • Call plans, where you pay a fixed amount per month for unlimited use of one or a group of numbers coupled with other services.

    • Capped call charges, where you pay a maximum charge per call no matter how long the call is.

    • Compensatory free calls, where calls are metered but you are given a rebate depending on your monthly usage.

    Text by Alastair Scott

    Why metering is wrong for the industry

    Telecommunications operators will no longer be able to offer platitudes, but must work hard to keep and expand market share. Here's why unmetered local calls fit the bill from their point of view ...

    Unmetered local calls are cheap to offer

    Cheap because their scope is limited to the operator's own network: for example, you at one end, your ISP at the other. Your operator doesn't have to pay other operators interconnect charges for the privilege of using their networks to carry the call. Think of your operator's network as a LAN.

    Special offers are more expensive for them

    Operators know that they must make themselves appear competitive. A typical offer is the 100 minutes plus of unmetered local calls per month offered by Cable and Wireless Communications (CWC). These calls can be to numbers on any operator's network: for the first time in this country, interconnect charges may not be covered by what the subscriber pays. Another current offer is capped national calls (50p), again with the issue of interconnect charges not necessarily being covered, and a previous one was capped international calls to Australia and New Zealand.

    Given that these offers cost an operator money, surely it is not beyond their imagination to offer unmetered local calls, to those who want them, for a suitably-calculated flat monthly rate? That way, they could offer real choice to their subscribers while plugging some revenue loss.

    Unmetered calls should not break the network

    With digital exchanges and fibre-optic cables already in place and better and better multiplexing techniques being used, there should be few major infrastructure changes required to maintain unmetered calls across an operator's network. Certainly, people will keep lines open longer, but this is only a problem for an analogue system. And, in any case, others can cope - for example, AT&T replaced a capped option with an unmetered one!

    Unmetered calls don't necessarily lose revenue

    Surely unmetered local calls lose an operator money - money they would otherwise gain by metering such calls?

    Metering, and eventually access by telephone modem itself, will become unattractive as new technologies not based on the 'land line' appear. A forward-looking operator must grab and hold on to market share now before it evaporates.

    And unmetered local calls encourage people to spend more money on other services. This is shown by a study performed by Cable and Wireless Watch: how much more would people spend per month if more services were available?

    In the main, UK operators offer too few services. The average telephone bill in New York City is quoted as being $160 (£100) per month - with unmetered local calls! ('Local' means three of the five area codes which span the city). This is because unmetered access encourages people to order services which exploit that access - for example, voice mail, remote fax collection and multiple lines. All of these are offered there at a reasonable monthly rate.

    Unmetered calls save money on billing

    A simple but powerful point, covered by our thirteenth Mythbuster.

    Unmetered local calls attract customers

    Operators have a serious problem with customers not staying put. With telephone number protability, a certain operator has a turnover of a quarter of its customers every three months, and this churn rate is accelerating.

    What could be more attractive to 'grab and hold on' to customers than unmetered local calls? After all, almost three-quarters of all calls made are local.

    Unmetered calls make Internet business sense

    The UK telecommunications infrastructure is modern and relatively unused. Some people point out that metering is required to keep people from overusing the Internet and clogging up its infrastructure. This is not so, as there has been astonishing progress in multiplexing and switching technologies: one operator says itself that, soon if not now, 'bandwidth [... will be] no longer an issue'. After all, digital TV, in the first instance, will be far more demanding on bandwidth than Internet access ...

    The Internet is becoming available on every desktop: you may already be permanently connected at work. Software developments such as streaming audio and video, channels, Active Desktop and instant product updates are driving hardware developments. Marketing experts working to make the Internet a more profitable realm argue that metering has no future - if someone is being charged by time they are not going to spend time looking closely at the Web site of an advertiser.

    Certainly, unmetered access by telephone modem is not as good as a permanent connection, but it is the first step along the way. The Internet can neither be appreciated nor exploited when access is metered.

    Text by Nick Mailer

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