The Spaniards are up in arms. Last week, the country's 1.7 million Internet surfers were urged to uncouple their modems, swallow their Web addiction, and stay off the Net for a full day - assuming Internet Explorer would let them shut off the connection, that is. The call to un-surf was a protest against the national telecoms giant, Telefonica, which recently made a steep hike in telephone charges. As helpful as ever, the solution of one minister was to advise people to surf late at night and at the weekends when it's cheaper. What an excellent idea, since we all know that's when businesses do their best work. The Spanish case is there as an illustration of the power of a national telecoms provider. We have BT - and despite the growing competition, BT guards its massive market share like Monica Lewinsky guards her old clothes. Despite the power, could BT actually be of use to the nation's Internet community, especially the business community? Sparks flew last June (PC Week, 16 June) when BT announced a direct access, subscription-free Net service trial that would cost no more than a penny per minute over standard call rates. ISPs around the UK were apoplectic. Cries of "foul" hit PC Week in a storm of calls and Emails from aggrieved ISPs. They may be panicked about BT's size and influence but is it such a bad thing for businesses? At the moment, the vast majority of ISPs pay BT for their lines, which means there's little flexibility in their pricing to businesses/ consumers. Obviously, ISPs are worried that if BT becomes a mega-ISP then it will offer a far cheaper service, while charging ISPs the same for using its networks. Not very sporting, but it's very doubtful that the regulator Oftel would allow it to happen. However, if BT wanted to be a cheap ISP, Oftel could grant permission on the condition that the ISPs using BT's networks were charged less to allow them to compete effectively. A likely scenario. For businesses and consumer, BT's entrance could the beginning of truly cheap Net access in the UK. Not such a bad prospect after all. Tel 0171 316 9000, Fax 0171 316 9355.
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