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Free Internet -- what you actually get, a ZDNet guide

It's a jungle out there. Unmetered access may be rolling like the proverbial stone gathering no moss, but trying to get your head round the plethora of deals out there can be as confusing as understanding BT's new Surftime.

It's a jungle out there. Unmetered access may be rolling like the proverbial stone gathering no moss, but trying to get your head round the plethora of deals out there can be as confusing as understanding BT's new Surftime. ZDNet to the rescue!

BUT, before you dive into this remarkable feat of helpful journalism, check out ZDNN's Unmetered Access Guide which will give you quick helpful hints on where to go for the best in unmetered access. It really is rather marvellous...

So, Here's a (hopefully) useful guide to the giddy world of unmetered access -- the free and the not-so-free.

BT has been forced to respond to the great unmetered access adventure with revisions to the price of Surftime. It has stripped the original five tariffs down to three. Users who want to continue paying per minute for surfing will be able to do so for one penny per minute (off-peak rate). Unmetered access at weekends and evenings (6pm to midnight weekdays and Friday midnight to Sunday midnight weekends)will cost £5.99. Unlimited 24 hour, seven day a week surfing will cost £19.99. If users are getting a second line for Internet calls, they will pay an additional £9.26 for line rental. Despite marketing Surftime as a retail product, Surftime will only be offered to users via ISPs. ISPs may well put an additional subscription charge on top of the other charges so users may find unlimited surfing actually costs around £30. No ISP has yet signed up for the service.

AltaVista burst onto the UK Internet scene from America on March 6, offering unlimited Internet access for £10 a year. However the free ISP, set to go live in June, will also charge an initial payment of between £30 and £50. Users will also have to visit AltaVista's home page at least once every time they log on.

Ntl beat AltaVista to the post, with the first truly free Internet access service, ntlworld, launching 17 April. ntlworld demands no subscription fees and no phone charges for accessing the Internet via a PC or, launched shortly after, via a television. There are a couple of small catches for non ntl subscribers. Consumers have to switch to ntl as their telephony provider -- only BT customers can switch to ntl and they will have to spend at least £10 a month on voice calls to qualify.

CallNet was the first ISP to offer totally free Internet access, back in November. No catch, no need to switch telephone company, just the carrot of a 30 percent saving on voice calls if users put in a 145 prefix. The service suffered early problems as its registration system buckled under the weight of demand. CallNet now claims there are no problems but users report the service is often down. 250,000 users have joined so far. Since relaunch, the service is not completely free, users must purchase an adapter box for £20. The box automatically prefixes calls with 145.

X-stream was the first ISP to offer free weekend and evening Internet connection. In December it began a trial of 24/7 access. X-stream estimates 400,000 people are currently using the service.

BT Internet announced last week it was to introduce free evening and weekend calls for a £9.99 subscription fee. Industry eyebrows were raised that Oftel allowed BT to do this, but the watchdog claims it is all above board. Critics claim the service penalises late-night surfers by cutting off the unmetered clock at midnight and turning all remaining onliners back into the rags of pay per minute. In the light of BT's new Surftime tariffs, expect this to be changed.

On Valentine's Day, cable operator Telewest launched SurfUnlimited, the UK's first flat rate Internet access service. Available to all those in the company's cable franchise area, it offers an unmetered Internet service for £10 a month. Customers must also spend at least £10 a month on voice calls. No subscriber figures yet, but the service has recently been inaccessible due to the numbers queuing up to subscribe. Analysts predict it may be forced to slash prices, following ntl's announcement.

Not to left out of the party, Virgin Net has promised that it is to offer a 'competitive' subscription based service, with a trial beginning in April. No details are yet available.

AOL currently offers users one penny per minute access. It is yet to announce an unmetered tariff but is not happy about BT's Surftime II.

Freeserve is also still considering what unmetered service to offer. At the moment, users can get up to 10 hours of Internet time free if they make up to £10 of voice calls using a 162 prefix.

LineOne also offer 10 hours free Internet time in exchange for time spent on voice calls. It hinted Wednesday it is about to launch a completely free service.

StrayDuck was launched in October 1999 in response to calls for unmetered access. Last month, the ISP was voted Best Value Service at the ISPA Internet Awards. Its system is not simple, but basically users get one week in every three free. Dialling an 0845 number for two weeks and paying at the pay per minute rate, the average hours spent online is then given free for the third week. Around 8,000 users so far. It is owned by World Online, the ISP which launched in the UK this year.

Totalise launched in July 1999 with a novel game plan for attracting subscribers. Instead of offering deals on phone bills it awarded shares in the company for minutes spent online. 1200 minutes surfing a month earns subscribers 85 shares. The success of this unique approach is demonstrated by its 100,000 registered subscribers and its award for Best Consumer Customer Service at the ISPA awards.

Screaming.net was launched in May 1999, so is one of the earlier entrants to this market. Offers users free evening and weekend calls in return for changing phone companies from BT to Localtel. The service has had difficulties, with a backlog of people wanting to transfer , billing and connectivity problems. Oftel got involved, slapping an anti-competitive order on BT for failing to transfer customers fast enough. Screaming.net claims the system is now working smoothly. Wednesday it was bought by World Online, the ISP that would be king. World Online is also about to announce an unmetered service

Take me back to the Unmetered Access Guide

Free and unmetered internet access has been on the agenda for some time -- right now the battle is on. Go to AnchorDesk UK to get the news comment from Tony Westbrook.

BT is simply making excuses, according to Guy Kewney. Go with him to read his news comment and opinion at AnchorDesk UK.