Jane Wakefield: Once upon a time there was the Net

The sad tale of a brave ISP's offer of free Internet access...

Like all good fairy tales, the story of CallNet was just too good to be true -- and sadly predictable.

If the UK public was Cinderella -- uninvited to the unmetered access ball -- then CallNet was certainly the fairy godmother intent on getting her charge a VIP ticket. Out of nowhere, CallNet came and waved its magic wand to give UK onliners the best gift of all -- completely free Net access.

And all credit to the plucky ISP, the first in the UK prepared to offer free access. But like your dad dancing at the school disco -- pride in what he is trying to do is often overcome by excruciating embarrassment at his over-enthusiasm -- and so it was with CallNet. All bravado on Friday, the ISP seemed a little too ready to dismiss critics who warned the network would never cope. Let them come, CallNet stated bravely. Like Humpty Dumpty on the wall, it was inevitable it would tumble.

And tumble it did on Monday -- with thousands of disappointed users unable to subscribe.

Enter the Big Bad Wolf of BT, for whom CallNet had nothing but praise on Friday. By Monday, the situation had changed somewhat with CallNet blaming BT for its collapse, claiming the telco could not handle the volume of registration calls. BT hit back, saying the capacity CallNet had ordered was ready and just waiting for CallNet to pick it up.

Whatever the hitch, there was a whole bunch of disappointed users waiting to enjoy the benefits of CallNet. People complained about having to wait three hours to get signed up. One desperate caller even tried calling a hundred times to get registered. CallNet is now dealing with the backlog and for those lucky enough to have registered, it claims the service is running smoothly. So like all good fairy tales it would seem the CallNet story has a happy ending with thousands of customers living happily ever after in the wonderful new land of unmetered access.

Meanwhile, Big Bad BT was still on the prowl, with chief wolf Peter Bonfield telling users who couldn't afford Internet access at home to get down to their local school to get online. Bonfield had meant to promote a new BT service which will see colleges, schools and libraries across the UK given unmetered access with a 50 percent discount. Unfortunately the BT boss inadvertently slipped on a banana skin of his own making, revealing how little he cared about the rest of the population.

Does the head of the biggest telco in the UK really believe the Internet revolution can be kick-started from libraries? While it is good news that libraries are going hightech -- I personally never managed to get to grips with the microfiche -- it is not from libraries that people will embrace the Net. The Internet is a communication revolution probably more important than the advent of TV. In Bonfield's vision of this revolution we will all be huddled around a communal screen like those in Indian villages gather round a beat-up black and white TV to find out about the world.

His comment drew heavy criticism from MPs of all parties, with some commentators calling for his resignation and ZDNet has been inundated with angry mails from readers. My immediate thought was that it was an immensely thoughtless, patronising and out-of-touch remark -- the 90's equivalent to Marie Antoinette telling the peasants to get themselves down to the cake shop

Andy Kyte -- the GartnerGroup analyst who posed the question to Bonfield -- was asking about social responsibility and whether it was BT's role to provide a public Internet service, affordable to all. New Labour is very keen to point out that -- unlike Thatcher's Britain -- it is possible to have a country that promotes both business and social justice. BT obviously does not agree and is making a mint. Its results are due out later this week and you can guarantee they will make RailTrack's admission it is making a million a day out of the humble commuter seem like chicken-feed.

Bonfield determination to defend BT's charges was presumably because he felt the sharp end of share-holders daggers in his back. Interestingly one such shareholder wrote to ZDNet News last week urging BT "to do the right thing" and introduce unmetered access, proving that to have shares does not necessarily preclude having a social conscience. After all this is not about giving things away but making things fair. Just as Marie Antoinette found herself in a revolution far bigger than she could comprehend, so BT is faced with something far more fundamental than a few whingeing Brits complaining about rip off multinationals.

The revolution is happening. The Internet will impact everyone in society and demands fair charges -- it really is as simple as that.

Bonfield claims there is no such thing as a free lunch. Some would argue that by charging for data calls on voice rates, BT has been enjoying one huge free lunch at the expense of the British public for a long time.

I too enjoyed a free lunch last week -- courtesy of guess who?