Totally free Internet access from Monday

Voice calls will subsidise the UK's first totally free Internet service

Totally free Internet access will be offered for the first time in Britain, 1 November by UK ISP Callnet.

Users of the service will be given a Callnet 0800 number to connect to the Internet for free and do not have to pay for setup costs or subscription fees. The company claims it can also offer 30 percent savings on voice calls if registered users prefix them with 145. Users do not have to leave BT.

Callnet, a 16 month old UK company, says it can offer the service through its partnership with North American Gateway (NAG). NAG's UK network provides the telecom service that underpins CallNet. Through the partnership all voice calls through Callnet's 145 service earn the company an undisclosed sum from BT. This, says a Callnet spokesman, will subsidise the free Internet access.

"This is no fly-by-night operation" says the spokesman, "If you want 30 percent savings on local, national and mobile calls you just prefix with 145. You can stay with BT, you simply register with the Callnet 0800 service and get free Internet access."

There are no minimum spend requirements for the CallNet service, no minimum contract period, sign-up fee or additional line rental costs.

Adam Daum, senior analyst at Gartner Group reckons the service heralds the beginning of a "narrowband revolution" where users will be free to leave their computers logged on 24 hours a day. "Narrowband maybe slower," says Daum, "but if its free, people will undoubtedly use it."

However, despite his enthusiasm for the service, Daum questions its business model. "I can't understand how, if a user is logged on all day, Callnet will make money on voice calls. I think a lot hangs on consumer behaviour. If we all stay online for hours, it could make things difficult for them [Callnet]." He adds: " I'm not going to predict that this economic model is unsustainable, people said that about Freeserve."

A spokesman for North American Gateway (NAG) -- the principle investor behind Callnet -- concedes Daum's concerns are justified but argues the economic model is based on the "average [user] profile". Citing an eight month trial in Canada the spokesman says the company's experience suggests there will be enough voice calls made to support free Net access.

Pre-empting concerns over Callnet's ability to cope with demand, the spokesman says, "we are obviously aware of the issues, but we are confident we have the required support and technical ability to cope. This is because of the way we control the number of users on the service. We do this by controlling the inbound flow using a caller's unique CLI (Caller Line Identification) . If you are not dialling in from your registered CLI, you won't get in."

More to follow

ZDNet will today provide an insight into what Callnet's announcement means to the consumer. If there is a question you want answered, tell the Mailroom .

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