Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications

CallNet 0800 - near and yet far (30 October 1999)

CallNet 0800 has announced that, from Monday 1 November, people signing up to its service will enjoy Internet access, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no call charges and no subscription fee.

This sounds good, to put it mildly, although there has been scepticism and yet more scepticism. We can see some problems:

  • It is a huge commercial risk because of the fundamental problem which will remain until there is regulatory change. The service is the ultimate attempt to mask metered interconnect charges; voice calls are subsidising a complete Internet access package, 168 hours a week.

  • It could be detrimental in the long run; BT and OFTEL may well try to use it as evidence that unmetered services exist - never mind on what basis - so nothing needs to happen. Indeed, OFTEL appears to be taking this line in its response to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Trade and Industry Electronic Commerce report.

  • Some subscribers, who physically cannot use the telephone for voice but do use it for data, will be of necessity 100 per cent subsidised by other subscribers. Quite apart from this feeling wrong, what if CallNet 0800 starts to have problems? The first to go will be 'heavy Internet users'. This is no idle speculation; the Operations Director of greatxscape has more or less said it before.

  • Unmetered Internet access through other companies subsidising BT's high per-minute charges (thus taking the risk) is to BT's liking.

  • As usual with a 'turn up and go' service, there is little or no redress if things go wrong.

All that said, CallNet 0800 is an exceptionally bold step and has had the effect of a gunshot on a dark night. We remember that the two previous, and less ambitious, leaps forward in UK Internet access provision (Freeserve then were both written off at the time yet, after initial problems not necessarily of their own making, now provide acceptable service.

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