Free Net access: Industry questions CallNet scheme

"There's no way CallNet will be able to cope."

Even before the CallNet 0800 service gets off the ground, consensus among experts and observers suggests that either its business model or its infrastructure will collapse under sheer weight of demand. Others argue the scheme might impact the UK's entire telecommunications infrastructure.

While all agree the promise of free net access is a significant step, most of those contacted by ZDNet believe it will bring the service crashing down sometime right after midnight on Sunday.

Paul Myers, outspoken MD of the UK's first almost free ISP, X-Stream gave the principle a clear thumbs up, but says in practice it will not cope with demand. "It's like a bank giving away notes. There's no way they will be able to cope."

Myers also questions a statement made by Peter Gbedemah of North American Gateway, the principle investor behind CallNet. In the CallNet press release Gbedemah says: " We have the technology and financial muscle to offer a quality of service that rivals British Telecom even if every single household in the United Kingdom registers for CallNet 0800". Myers dismissed the comment as "ridiculous" arguing that no single carrier could cope with such a load.

"On Sunday night let's see how many engaged tones, they get," says Myers.

James Eibisch analyst at research company IDC is similarly sceptical, "I would take all this with a pinch of salt. Basically, I'll believe it when I see it."

Even the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications has serious reservations about the service. A spokesman for the organisation said: "We think this might be detrimental to Britain's long term infrastructure. BT could end up going to ministers and claiming that there is no problem about unmetered telecommunications anymore, when in fact the whole service will be subsidised by long distance phone calls." Asked if CallNet's scheme was a victory his organisation, the spokesman denied that free Internet access was ever part of the plan. "We have never said we want completely free Internet access, just unmetered telecommunications. It all comes down to the old suspicion of an apparently free lunch."

Despite these disparaging noises BT rushed to CallNet's defence. "I'm sure they wouldn't have gone ahead if they didn't have a workable business model," says a spokesman. "As far as overloading the network, we will be monitoring this closely and would act immediately to deal with any issues."

Whatever the specifics of CallNet's offering, as Maev Sullivan, telecommunications analyst with Gartner Group Research points out, the furore over its arrival guaranteed to cause quite a stir in the ISP community. "Lot's of noses are going to be put out of joint and they'll all no doubt be running to Oftel on Thursday complaining."