Those who cannot afford Internet access should go to schools in the evening to get online according to BT's CEO Peter Bonfield.
His remarks, reportedly made Monday at the GartnerGroup symposium in Cannes, come amid mounting pressure for BT to reduce call tariffs for Internet use and to introduce unmetered access.
Responding to a question from GartnerGroup analyst Andy Kyte, Bonfield reportedly said: "People who can afford it will have Internet access. People who can't will go to schools in the evenings for cheap access."
The comment has caused outrage.
Derek Wyatt, Labour MP and head of the all-party Internet group described the comment as "ridiculous". He continued: "Going to school [to access the Internet] at 6 o'clock is not reasonable or fair. Like the TV, the Internet is a public service and should be free and accessible at home. We have to find a way of funding it."
Wyatt believes the local loop -- owned by BT -- needs to be unbundled ahead of Oftel's 2001 deadline. He also suggested that lottery money or a proportion of the TV licence could be used to fund cheaper Internet access.
Richard Allen, MP for Sheffield and Liberal Democrat spokesman on Technology and IT was equally disappointed by Bonfield's comment. "It's very disturbing that the head of BT should make such a statement. Having to go to a school to get online is not the way forward. It's very worrying but hopefully other competitors will soon outstrip BT." He added: "Our view is that long term, affordable, unmetered access is necessary. We must unbundle the local loop."
Alan Duncan, Shadow Minister for technology joined the attack. "The whole point of this fantastic revolution is one shouldn't have to traipse to a school to access the Internet. The value of the Internet is to be able to access it from home," he said. "A revolution in telephone charges need to happen to drive the Internet revolution."
But it wasn't just politicians who thought Bonfield's comment was inappropriate. The UK Internet industry was equally scathing, condemning it as patronising. "It is a little like saying people don't need TVs at home because they can go and watch it in the village hall or that individuals don't need radios because they can gather round one in the local pub, " said a spokesman for UK ISP Screaming.Net. "He [Bonfield] is assuming that the greatest communication device ever invented can be shared. He is saying it can be owned by individuals if you have money but shared if they haven't. This is a little out of touch," the spokesman said.
A BT spokeswoman claimed she did not recognise Bonfield's quote which appeared on VNU.Net Monday. She threw the burden of responsibility on PC manufacturers. "The price of a computer, which has a high capital cost, far outweighs the cost of going online," she said.
A spokesman for CUT (Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications) believes Bonfield's views conflict with government calls for a wired nation. "It goes totally against the grain of what the government has been saying about an IT nation. To have some people with access in their homes and some waiting in queues outside schools creates a divide," the spokesman said.
CUT agrees that cheap access in schools is an important issue but believes it is in homes that usage will be most important. "How many children are banned from using the Internet when they get home, not because of the income of their parents but simply because people don't know how much it will cost beforehand. Bonfield has failed to understand the issue. People like that are living in a different time zone to other Internet users," the spokesman said.
Ironically perhaps, the business of speaking up for Bonfield fell to Andy Kyte of Gartner. "It is not up to BT to define social policy. He [Bonfield] would be hauled over the coals by his shareholders if he did," said Kyte.
Kyte believes it is not BT's responsibility to oversee decisions of social importance, and laid the burden squarely at the feet of telecoms watchdog, Oftel. "It is about what pressure the regulators should bring to bear to make commercial organisations achieve desirable social objectives and encourage businesses to believe in ways other than pure capitalism. To believe in good social reasons," he said.
Kyte threw down a challenge to the watchdog. "Oftel needs to take onboard what constitutes licences and what we do with them. Is it about bringing huge chunks of revenue for the tax services or about achieving social goals?"
Oftel claimed it does want universal affordable access for all. "We would like to see best prices and eventually free access for the consumer," a spokesman said. He denied it is Oftel's role to force prices down. "Competition is doing that for us," he said.
What do you think of Bonfield's comment?
Is Oftel doing enough?
Tell the Mailroom