Richard Barry: 'IT's Like This...'

There's a row going on. It has all the makings of a classic - Big boy takes on little boy only to find himself up against the little fella's mates.

BT, one of the largest, most powerful organisations in the UK, says it's trying to grow the Internet by offering a plan that looks great: it's cheap - according to industry analyst Inteco it could work out cheaper for nearly 40 percent of the UK's surfing population and it's easy because there's no registration - just dial into the service and away you go. Great news - more people online and for less money. On the face of it BT's so called project `Click' seems like a great plan for consumers but hidden under the marketing drivel there is a catch.

Imagine the Tunisians had the inherent ability to fly. Yesterday's game would have been a nightmare. Two nil, not likely, it probably would have been around 30 - 0 leaving David Seaman a very bemused character indeed. If the Tunisian team could fly, FIFA would have to intervene to ensure it didn't use its unfair advantage. It wouldn't be a competition, it would be a walkover and if Tunisia was the only team with the gift of levitation what chance the competition?

Back on Earth, BT also has an advantage. In fact in this particular scenario BT is armed with at least two devastating weapons to achieve a kill. First, it can afford to waive registration fees in favour of adding a penny-a-minute extra to its phone charges for anyone surfing the Net. For BT to be as expensive as say, Demon - which charges £10/month registration - a Click customer would have to be online for at least 16 hours. That's a lot of hours, making Click an extremely attractive option.

BT's second armament is a facility the opposition simply has no answer to. As well as giving users a cheaper ride, BT is also able to integrate Internet bills into the normal BT telephone bill making it by far the simplest Internet experience available.

The consumer is, it could be argued, about to stumble on one of the simplest and cheapest ways to get onto the Internet. So why is the industry against the move? Surely we need the Net to be overflowing with users if it is to succeed?

Put simply if BT were allowed to conclude the trials it is conducting with project Click in Northern Ireland and emerge with the same plan intact, ISPs up and down the country would be felled by one of the biggest abuses of monopoly power the British Internet community has yet witnessed. No other ISP is able to offer the kind of discounts BT is offering: Many users are online for only 10 to twenty hours a month - the ISPs need the registration fees to stay afloat. Look at Demon, probably the most successful ISP in the UK and it never once made a profit - even with registration fees.

Adam Daum at Inteco threw light on another disturbing possibility which only adds to the conclusion that BT's Click is a bully tactic aimed at ousting competition to further BT's thus far impotent foray into Net service provision.

Daum says BT would have the facility to scan its Click users' Net useage. Once that goes up heavy users could be immediately targeted to receive mails from BT promoting `BT Internet' as an alternative option. Unlike Click, BT Internet offers email and Web space - the perfect step-up.

BT's spokespeople and PR outfit are staying pretty quiet. The day Click was announced BT staff were lining up to promote the service. A decidedly quieter mood hung over the press office when ZDNet News told it ISPA was taking its concerns to Oftel, the telecommunications watchdog and the only organisation in the UK with the power to interfere with BT's plans.

Oftel too is concerned at the enormous potential Click has and stands to be criticised for halting a plan that could promote the rapid adoption of the Net to the masses. But that is what Oftel is there for. It's job is to ensure a level and fair playing field for everyone, Internet businesses as well as Internet users. Everyone wants the Net to succeed but Oftel has to ensure a role for the Lear Jet as well the Jumbos.