BT's Net monopoly ends Wednesday

Oftel's anti-competitive ruling on SurfTime opens the market for cheaper unmetered access, although expect lower quality service

Oftel's decision to end BT's monopoly of Internet services is being hailed as a victory for consumers but experts predict trouble ahead.

The telecoms watchdog has ordered BT to give rival operators access to its network following a complaint from WordCom that BT's own unmetered service, SurfTime, was anti-competitive. The ruling means competing operators will be able to offer alternative versions of SurfTime starting tomorrow.

While experts claim the ruling -- described by AOL as a "seismic shift in the telecoms landscape" -- will make it easier for ISPs and telcos to offer cheap surfing, there are concerns over quality of service. Tim Johnson, telecoms analyst with Ovum says, "ISPs can start offering all the Internet you can eat for £10 a month but they wont be able to guarantee that at peak times." With the increased take-up of cheap access Johnson believes there will be times "when the service overloads".

System overloads will happen, says Johnson, because operators will put multiple users on the same circuit. ISPs will pay out £424 per year for each circuit and Johnson predicts they will put at least 10 users on each port. For the consumer, that means engaged tones and downtime during peak hours.

Quality of service has become a huge issue since the first wave of cut price unmetered deals began with the CallNet 0800 launch back in November last year. Since then the ISP has been beset with problems. Initially users found it impossible to register and many customers have complained since about poor quality service.

ntl, which has its own network, was also swamped by people trying to register for its "free" Internet service, launched in March. Last week the cable company sent out apologetic letters to frustrated users explaining that it had miscalculated demand and was spending £1m a day to cope.

Nicholas Lansman, secretary general of ISPA (Internet Service Providers' Association) believes consumers will judge for themselves if cheaper services are worth it. "Ultimately they will vote with their feet. If they are offered a poor service they will go elsewhere. It is a trade off between cut price rates and good connections," he says.

The magic Internet access price established by Demon eight years ago when it was actually called Tenner A Month -- will give you unlimited evening and weekend access through your favourite ISP. Let Guy Kewney explain everything. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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