ISP breathe.net's "Free for Life" Internet access service went live Monday, offering users unlimited surfing for a one-off fee of £50.
Despite a huge number of announcements about free services, breathe is only the second ISP to actually go live with a no-monthly-fee service. The rest of the pack are not far behind -- ntl's free offering is expected in the middle of April and AltaVista, the first to announce such a service, is rolling it out in June.
The unlimited-access packages are a response to traditional ISP services in Britain, which require users to pay either local telephone charges or a monthly subscription fee, or both. Metered access has been seen as holding back Internet adoption in the UK. But many see the services, which offer unlimited Internet access with no phone charges and no monthly fee, as unsustainable.
To avoid the problems experienced by CallNet -- the UK's first free Internet service which found itself unable to cope with demand -- breathe is rolling the service out slowly, limiting it to 50,000 subscribers in the first month.
The flurry of free Internet services, kickstarted by AltaVista last month, has been questioned by some experts as little more than a marketing ploy to gain eyeballs for the broadband revolution just around the corner.
breathe's COO Sean Gardner admits broadband will change the Internet and that it will not be free, but promises to maintain the narrowband free offer for those who want it: "We may well offer broadband as a subscription product, but we will maintain the current narrowband offer."
For breathe, the long term game plan is mobile Internet services. "We don't really see ourselves as an ISP, we are more a mobile company," Gardner says. breathe intends to launch a £10-a-month WAP service next month.