Pressure mounts on BT over unmetered access

A host of experts, The Times, AOL and now Intel call for change in UK phone tariffs

The pressure on BT to offer Internet users unmetered access intensifies Thursday as Intel joins the bandwagon for cheaper Net access.

A day after e-Minister Patricia Hewitt met with members of the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications (CUT) and representatives from AOL to discuss Net charges Intel has, tentatively, thrown its weight behind the campaign.

At Intel's second "Question Time" briefing in London hosted by John Humphrys Thursday morning, ZDNet UK News asked whether Intel supported the principle behind the growing campaign for unmetered Internet access. Gordon Graylish, director of product marketing at Intel, said it is clear prices are too high. "Ultimately high costs result in low use. It will have a very negative effect in the long term on UK business. We would encourage them [BT] to lower prices," he said.

Stopping short of criticising the telecoms giant, Graylish said it was incumbent on BT to examine its price structures "vigorously".

A government report published last month recommended BT and other operators introduce flexible tariffs for Internet access. Hewitt promised to "put pressure" on both Oftel and BT although details of the e-Minister's strategy were not made clear. Hewitt is due to meet with BT and Oftel in the next few weeks and CUT is optimistic there will be rapid progress on the issue. "We are happy to let the e-Minister do what she can but time is of the essence. We need to see action match up to the words," a CUT spokesman said.

Clare Gilbert, vice president and general counsel for AOL agrees. "We feel BT should be acting now. We see no reason why unmetered access should not be available in a matter of months." Gilbert believes Oftel has changed its position in recent months and is confident of the watchdog's support. "If there is a demand for new access charges and BT fails to act, Oftel have made it clear they will support us," she said.

BT has always maintained its hands are tied because its operating license prevents it from discriminating between voice and data calls. "Price reviews make it incumbent on us to protect phone users against differentiated pricing," a spokeswoman said. Oftel dismissed this as misinformation: "We would welcome BT offering innovative and differentiated tariffs and it does not mean it would be breaking the terms of its operating license," an Oftel spokeswoman said.

Asked if Oftel had the power to force change, the spokeswoman said: "We have been asked by government to ask telecommunication operators to offer a wider range of tariff and greater flexibility for consumers but ultimately Oftel cannot tell BT what tariff to offer." Neither is Oftel prepared to stipulate what charge system it would prefer operators use: "We want the best choice, the best value for money for consumers and unmetered tariffs may well be part of that," the spokeswoman said.

Derek Wyatt, Labour MP and chairman of the all-party Internet Group believes unmetered access is the way forward for the UK and has told Trade and Industry secretary Stephen Byers that the only way to get mass uptake of the Internet is to offer users free access. He is not sure real change can happen until politicians start taking the Net seriously and an Internet minister is appointed. "Until a minister of the Internet sits with the Cabinet rather than the Department of Trade and Industry, there will be no real change," he said.

The e-Minister will face a public grilling as she takes part in a live online chat as part of the BBC's Webwise campaign. The event will take place on the BBC's Web site on Monday October 25 at 7pm.