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EU to look at cost of Internet access

Europe follows Blair's lead for lower online access cost
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The high price of Internet access in Europe will be top of the agenda at the forthcoming EU summit in Lisbon, as European leaders consider legislation to bring costs down.

The cost of Internet access in the UK has become headline news as Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown rail against the high price of getting online. The EU summit -- being held in Lisbon on March 23 -- is the first time European leaders have come together to discuss the Internet and the impact it is having on the European economy.

Politicians are worried that Europe is at a disadvantage over the US, where surfers enjoy unlimited Internet access for flat monthly fees of around £15. In Europe the problem of pay-per-minute access is widespread. Both Germany and France have incumbent operators and even higher Internet prices than the UK.

In a recent interview with ZDNet News, e-Minister Patricia Hewitt says BT "looks with envy at other European operators", and claims that the situation in Germany is worse than in the UK because Deutsche Telekom controls the ISP market as well as the local loop.

ISP AOL, a long-time campaigner for unmetered access, believes the UK is far ahead of its European neighbours. "The UK is better than pretty much any other European country," an AOL spokesman claims. "We are further down the road to realising the importance of flat-rate access, and BT deserves more credit than it gets. Compared to France Telecom or Deutsche Telekom, it is light years ahead."

According to AOL, a sea-change is happening in Europe. "It [Internet access price] wasn't something that featured in European policy six months ago. Europe is following Blair's lead on this," the spokesman said. In recent months, the call for cheaper access from the Prime Minister, Chancellor Gordon Brown and e-Minister Patricia Hewitt has been getting louder and louder.

Industry is often wary of government intervention and regulation, but AOL believes government intervention is essential on the issue of cost. "We believe politicians do have a role to play," the spokesman said. "Market forces go a long way to change things, but there is a limit to what market forces can do," he said.

MEP and member of the newly-founded European Internet Foundation, James Ellis, is not convinced European legislation is the way forward. "Legislation at a European level for telephone costs is, frankly, not the way forward. Pressure needs to be applied on member states to conform to the norm, but legislation is not necessarily the best way forward."

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