Jane Wakefield: No free lunches on the Net

Watch out... unmetered's costly trendy brother's about

By the time shopping portal Zoom announced its completely free Internet service last week, it already seemed like old news.

If a week is a long time in politics, it's a lifetime in Internet terms. While Zoom was, in fact, only the third company in the UK to offer completely free Internet calls, it seemed like the thousandth. The Internet runs on dog years rather than human ones, and ideas that are bright as a new penny in the morning lose their shine long before the sun sets.

ISPs and portals are suddenly as eager as young pups to bring this fast-moving world to your doorstep at the cheapest possible price, which is strange considering unmetered Internet calls were merely a twinkle in AOL's eye just two weeks ago. Now its younger and more trendy brother -- completely free calls -- is wandering round the joint likes it owns the place.

Such a dramatic turnaround could only happen in the Internet world. And the fact that just over a week after the revolution began, we are yawning and asking "what's next?". It could only happen in the Internet world. It would seem it's as easy to impress the Net generation as it is to persuade a teenager to wear a tie to a wedding.

In reality, Net heads are right to be underwhelmed. It is claimed that the cost of subsidising Internet calls will run into millions, maybe even billions. And no company is going to spend that amount of money without some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That pot is most likely to be broadband, but it's not going to be free -- or even particularly cheap.

The whole idea of narrowband access is in danger of becoming passé as the really trendy surfers move to broadband. In six months' time, your one-off payment of £50 for narrowband access will seem like a waste of money as you wait minutes for your favourite page to download, and your smug broadband friends insist you come round to their house (probably converted to a home/office/server farm) to see how quickly they download the complete works of Shakespeare.

Broadband will definitely not be free. In fact -- at £50 a month -- it will be rather expensive. Cable company Telewest (quote: TWT) is rapidly becoming BT's bete noir. First it beat BT (quote: BT) to Surftime with its cheaper SurfUnlimited offer. Last week it was at it again, rolling out broadband services three months ahead of BT's ADSL launch.

Interestingly though, this time it did not undercut the telco. Its broadband service will also cost £50 a month.

So before you rub your hands in glee at the too-good-to-be true Internet deals currently being bandied about, remember just how quickly things move in Internet time. Pay your money to AltaVista or breathe.net by all means, but don't believe that will be the last time you put your hand in your pocket to pay for Internet services. There is, as BT is constantly pointing out, no such thing as a free lunch.

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