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Jane Wakefield: How we can't resist a bargain

They promised the World and delivered Barnsley.
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

My favourite unmetered joke! To be honest it's also the only unmetered joke I know -- any more gratefully received. I have to confess that I didn't think of it. It comes instead from a frustrated ZDNet reader fed up with LibertySurf's service. As with all the best jokes it has a huge ring of truth about it. In the crazy land of unmetered access it seems that no sooner has a service set up than it falls apart. A new unmetered ISP crawls out of the woodwork every day and Internet businesses put together with rubberbands and toilet rolls are shouting about their great new services.

And for the moment, it would seem we can't get enough of it. The queues to get online with a cheap unmetered service provider must rival those in Russia as they waited for bread in pre-Perestroika Eastern Europe. The pent-up demand for unmetered has had analysts tearing up their forecasts and guessing. While curves charting the expedential growth of all things Internet and e-commerce have always been steep, unmetered access has sent the axis off the chart entirely.

The truth is no-one seems to know just how many of us want to get online but if the 'Everything for a quid' shop in Walthamstow is anything to go, it may be governed more by the British love of a bargain than by a new found interest in the Internet. It is a part of the British psyche to get excited by paying less for something than someone else. I know people who will walk two or three miles to go to a grotty pub just because the beer is 50 pence cheaper than their local. Look at the old ladies comparing lettuce prices next time you are in Sainsburys and you will see what I am talking about.

So before you get carried away with the whole cheap Net deal bear in mind that technology and bargain prices do not sit happily together. While you can get away with buying cheap food and beer, technology has a habit of being a snob. Surely you remember your friends sniggering as you proudly showed off your new Amstrad hi-fi, then blinding you with science as they interrogate you about the size of your woofers?

The world of technology is a cruel one. And the bargain basement ISPs are beginning to resemble the kid with the Asda own-brand trainers -- they are not about to start winning friends and influencing people. There is nothing more frustrating than technology that doesn't work as it should. Most of the online generation are young -- and being brought up on the 15 second culture of MTV they think they have better things to do than watch a Web page download. And they are right.

There is also the risk of long term damage to the UK's Internet industry if new users' first impression of the Net is of a service that doesn't work. Delays, engaged tones and inability to register for the service are not the best adverts for it and will do nothing to back up Tony Blair's claims that the Internet is the best thing since foccaccia bread.

Like the Internet stock market, things will eventually level out. AltaVista admitted last week that it was actually not going to go down the bargain road and would prefer to charge a little bit more for a decent service. Others will follow suit now that the telecoms watchdog Oftel has taken off the lead BT has had round its neck and started to bark. With the new wholesale deal, it will be much easier for ISPs to work out the cost of offering unmetered services and will be able to do so at a reasonable charge. There will be a price to pay but at least you will finally get a reliable service.

And for all you cheapskates out there, those people who can't believe the old adage 'no such thing as a free lunch', there will always be bargain basement services. CallNet 0800 has had some huge problems coping with demand and, if emails to ZDNet are anything to go by, has not always had a very solid service. In fact it is currently trying to improve its network which will include changing name from CallNet 0800 to the snappy title of CallNet 0808 105 0000. Which is, I suppose, another unmetered joke.

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