BBC responds to critics of new "Freebeeb" net access

The British Internet Publishers' Alliance (BIPA) launched an attack on the government Thursday for failing to protect free ISPs against competition from the BBC.

BIPA is concerned the launch of Freebeeb -- the BBC's free ISP which went live today -- will stifle competition in the free ISP market. BIPA believes a publicly-funded commercial service is a serious threat to Internet publishing and has written to the government voicing its concerns.

BIPA chairman Sir Frank Rogers is concerned about the unfair advantage the BBC will have as an ISP, given its huge marketing and branding resources. "With high visibility, inevitably supported by numerous cross-promotional opportunities and on-air references, the BBC will now be in control of a commanding gateway to the Internet, cross-subsidised by the licence payer," he said.

Executive chairman of London Internet Exchange (LINX) Keith Mitchell is concerned license payers will be funding a commercial service. "If this is going to be subsidised by license payers ISPs will take a dim view of having to compete with a state-funded monopoly. It is, potentially, unfair competition," he said.

Calling for an independent inquiry into the BBC's online activities, LineOne managing director Ajay Chowdhury has serious doubts about the service. "The free ISP market is already extremely competitive so what does the BBC aim to achieve by this move?" he asks. "What safeguards are in place that will prevent Freebeeb.net from being promoted on the multitude of non-commercial sites available from the BBC? How can we be sure that BBC internal bias will not put Freebeeb.net in advantageous positions that commercially run operations cannot match?" he said.

Responding to the criticism, director of BBC Web site beeb.com and Freebeeb Rupert Miles denies the balance between commercial and public services was being compromised by the new service. ""We have a clear policy on this," he said. "Not one penny of the license fee goes to support commercial services." Miles admits the ISP will be a "shop window to the BBC" but denies the ISP would have a monopoly on content. "It would be unfair if the content we are flagging was not available to every other ISP but AOL, Freeserve and the others can go to exactly the same content," he said.

Miles claims the decision to join the crowded ISP market was down to Freeserve. "Freeserve changed everything. Internet access is a mainstream market now," he said. He hopes Freebeeb will be in the top ten ISPs by the end of the year and threw down the gauntlet to detractors. "Far from stifling the market, our aim is to grow the market. People should be celebrating the BBC helping people go online."

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