Jane Wakefield: BT admits it's good to surf

Pressure causes the telco to buckle

Free 24-hour Net access in the UK has finally arrived as CallNet bravely goes where no ISP has gone before. And while the news is good, maybe even great, it is by no means the answer to all Tony Blair's prayers.

The government is keen for the UK to be at the forefront of the e-commerce revolution and the only way to do that is to bring down Internet charges. And that doesn't just mean a handful of operators like CallNet offering relief from BT's stranglehold but fundamental changes in the way BT charges for access and allows others to do the same.

BT owns 85 percent of the UK telco market and is therefore the first stop in getting the nation wired.

Localtel's ISP, Screaming.net would be the first to admit that taking over a service from BT is not easy. When it signed its Calls and Access agreement with BT -- enabling it to offer users free evening and weekend calls -- it found the telco mammoth less than helpful in handing over customers, a requirement that is part of BT's licence. Billing blunders and a backlog of 50,000 customers forced Localtel to complain to Oftel that BT just wasn't playing cricket. The watchdog is so cross with BT it slapped an anti-competitive order on it and ordered it hand over its customers to Localtel or be grounded for the next three months -- and have its pocket-money stopped.

A competitive market place is sure hard to get off the ground.

The e-Minister, bless her, is forever banging on about the need for greater competition in the telco market and gave her biggest hint yet that she wants unmetered access. Curiously BT seems to agree. It is no longer a question of if but when as BT takes up Tony Blair's clarion call for a Net nation and runs with it like it invented the idea. Oh yes, the BT boys and girls say casually without any hint of irony, that cheaper Net access is crucial to the development of e-commerce in the UK. Forgive me while I pick my eyeballs up from the floor.

This is not what BT has been saying for the last year: Our charges are quite cheap enough thankyou and we can't discriminate between voice and data callers -- that has been the standard BT line up until now. On the question of when it will bring down costs BT has been tight-lipped but I have always given it the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the UK's richest company -- unlike its Bob Hoskins-led advertising campaign -- doesn't think it is good to talk. Perhaps BT had a difficult childhood with a distant father (Mr Oftel, I think his name was) and never learnt to express its feelings about personal matters such as how much a phone call should cost. But just as surely as Nineties man finds it easier to cry than his predecessors, BT has learnt that it needs to talk, and talk quickly as media, government, Oftel and other ISPs lean on it.

Poor ol' BT, it must feel like Atlas propping up the world as everyone points the finger and tells it that slow take-up of the Net here is all its fault. I'd feel sorry for it if I didn't believe those people were right.

BT's big excuse has always been that it would just love to make Net calls cheaper but it can't because that would be unfair to its voice-only customers. Just imagine how outraged Mrs Muggins at 49 Acacia Avenue -- for whom Net means curtains -- will be when she finds out Mr Miggins at 47 is paying nothing to log on to porn, while she is weighed down with charges for calling her mother. As BT prides itself on protecting its customers (not to mention pleading with them to come back if they leave) it couldn't countenance such a thing. But suddenly BT is hinting it is not such a problem any more. New numbers for data-only calls is the answer they tell us. Blimey, they must have collected all the egg-heads and boffins in the land to come up with that one.

When asked why it has taken so long to find this alternative BT did not have an answer. Perhaps it is not so good to talk after all.

There is little doubt that what Tony Blair wants, Tony Blair usually gets and if he and his cronies want cheaper access then BT will certainly be forced to answer his prayers. But the idea that BT has suddenly seen the light of its own accord is one I just can't buy. Pressure is a powerful tool and it is pressure that has led to the U-turn. BT will be dragged kicking and screaming into a new model for Internet access.

I personally doubt if turning off the metered access clock will be part of BT's immediate plans but expect cheaper access in the next week or two.

Or I'll eat my hat.

What do you think about Internet charges and BT? Tell the Mailroom