Govt to pressure BT over Net access cost

Moves to improve Net access while keeping an eye on fair trading, in wake of landmark e-commerce report.

The government called for a review of competition in e-commerce markets Monday, and confirmed it will be looking closely at BT's dominance over the Internet's infrastructure.

The move follows Monday's report on e-commerce policy by the government's Performance and Innovation Unit and is expected to highlight the need for more flexible Internet access charges.

New e-Minister Patricia Hewitt revealed Monday that she intends to put pressure on BT to cut the cost of Internet access. "We need a tariff package like the mobile phone industry has, something that is tailored for the use you are going to make of the Internet. We haven't yet got that for the Internet and BT needs to move much faster on this," she said.

Hewitt's stance on call charges will no doubt be welcomed by an industry that has long called for flat-rate pricing -- the norm in America. In response, BT claims to be well on track for cheaper access. Price cuts announced two weeks ago will allow users to surf for "an hour on weekday evenings or weekends, and still get change from 50p", according to managing director Bill Cockburn.

The report also raised concerns over BT's rollout of the high bandwidth DSL technology, suggesting it would give the telco an unfair advantage in the fledgling market for high-speed (or broadband) Net access. BT denied this was the case and a spokeswoman claimed DSL would play an essential role in making "services accessible to a wide range of people". She added: "BT is a commercial company and we need to look at benefits to our customers, staff and shareholders in the round. We don't see ourselves as a monopoly."

In a flurry of e-activity following the report, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and Oftel will review other barriers to online trade. The government is worried about the possible domination of digital broadcasters as they enter the Internet space and the huge share of advertising held by such leading ISPs as Freeserve.

An OFT spokesman was unable to give details of the review. It is due to be completed in March 2000.

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