Jane Wakefield: Come on BT, free the Net

In a week when pressure mounts for unmetered calls, will it fall on deaf ears at BT?

It's time to celebrate as the Internet turns thirty this week. As it starts to come to terms with its advancing age, surfers across the globe are faced with a dilemma -- just what do you get the thirty year old who has everything?

The nine founding members of CUT (Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications) are in no doubt what the Net wants for its birthday -- unmetered access for all. The organisation set up by a bunch of individuals who were cross with BT for doing what BT does best -- overcharging -- has grown into quite a lobby since it was founded. It has one very influential friend in AOL , which has been shouting loudly about the need to turn off the access clock since Freeserve started nicking its subscribers with its free access model. Freeserve, on the other hand, have not been shouting loudly about the need to keep costs high despite the fact it and the myriad other freebie services depend on telephone charges for a large percentage of their revenue.

Wednesday CUT found a new friend in e-Minister Patricia Hewitt. Both CUT and AOL met up with her to discuss unmetered access and were treated to a charm offensive from a consummate politician. Hewitt nodded earnestly at everything CUT had to say and promised to do what she could. I personally am slightly doubtful about Hewitt. There seems to be plenty of words but little substance behind them, so I wait with interest to see how she intends to convince BT to drop its charges.

There is no doubt that access charges in the UK are the highest in Europe and while our American cousins enjoy 24-hour free online time, the average user in the UK is online for around eight hours a week. With more and more services going on the Net, it is clear that users should not be forced to worry about how long they are surfing. After all, people aren't charged for window-shopping.

Analysts , Internet businesses and users all agree that e-commerce can't really get off its feet until usage is free. CUT doesn't believe that unmetered access -- where users pay a monthly subscription fee for as much Net time as they want -- should replace the pay per minute system. They and their allies think users should have choice, a range of tariffs to suit individuals, rather like that used in the mobile phone industry.

There is one thorn in the side of the unmetered campaign and that is BT. While government pressure is embarrassing for it, there is nothing a government can do to force BT to change its business model. Oftel seems singularly reluctant to do anything either. The telecoms watchdog has always been something of an enigma to me. Rather like the bloke in the office who swans around without anybody really knowing what he does, I find myself wondering what Oftel actually does.

When I think of Oftel I think of Dickensian clerks sitting at high desks and filling in ledgers. While I'm sure it is really a very high-tech environment, there is an old-fashioned, civil service attitude from its staff which I find quite worrying. There is a due process, forms must be filled in, consultations held and procedures followed -- seems a pretty standard reply to any question. Which takes an awfully long time and usually ends up with Oftel letting BT get away with it.

I don't know whether Oftel is in BT's pockets as much as some people think but -- judging by the emails I've received -- the parent of the telecommunications industry has a favourite in BT. Oftel is supposed to prevent monopolistic practises and yet BT control 85 percent of the market. Now I am no anti-trust lawyer, but I smell a rat.

While Patricia Hewitt and AOL, etc can wag their fingers at BT as much as they like, I am not sure BT will be moved. It has got away with it up until now and will surely be hoping to hold out at least until 2001, when its local loop is unbundled and the network keys handed over to new operators. Until then BT may well be sticking its fingers in its ears and singing over the criticism .

Now for anyone interested in the millennium bore, sorry bug, stop snoozing at the back because there is good news at last. In the wonderful land of Action 2000 -- the government agency set up to oversee all things buggy -- the world is blue. Finance is blue, food is blue, money is blue, essential services are blue. And blue means no risk of bug disruption. So all you scare-mongers out there who predicting Armageddon come New Year's Eve, stop running to the hills with your cans of baked beans and come celebrate the blueness of the UK.

It does seem something of a miracle that there is good news on the bug at last. In July eight big financial companies were far from ready and back in April nearly 10 percent of the NHS was still at risk. It seems everyone has been working hard to combat the problem and the UK is clearly miles ahead compared to other countries. In a way it is something of a shame -- I was quite looking forward to millennium chaos.

And finally, a useless fact for you. In my exploration of the history of the Internet I have discovered that the Queen is an early adopter. Apparently she sent an email way back in 1976, making her the first head of State to go online. A techie Queen, now that is good news.