Internet access charges in the UK are set to tumble from mid-December under a new pricing regime announced today by BT.
Under the new service provider tariff, ISPs will be able to offer consumers several hours of Internet access without them having to pay a local phone charge.
Subscribers would likely pay the ISP a fixed monthly fee to pay for the service. However, some ISPs may waive this fee and recoup revenue through ecommerce or other services - resulting in totally free use of the Internet.
But while Freeserve welcomed the new tariffs, AOL said the price cuts were not enough and didn't meet the public's demand for unmetered Internet access.
ISPs will be able to buy Internet ports for £140 per month, which include 56 hours' usage per week and cater for 14 simultaneous customers. Excess usage will be charged at under one pence per minute.
BT estimates that if customers spent an average of eight hours per day online, ISPs would have to pay BT £10 per customer per month for each subscriber.
"This seriously brings down the cost, especially for heavy weekend users, because ISPs could construct a tariff which gives very low-cost access," said a BT spokesman.
Freeserve, the UK's largest ISP, welcomed the news, saying it represented a further step away from the old subscription-based, high access fee models.
"Freeserve welcomes this announcement, and is looking forward to the opportunities this new charging scheme may offer to provide an even better service to Freeserve users," said Freeserve chief executive John Pluthero in a statement.
But rival provider AOL said the move didn't go far enough.
"The reality is it's not flat, it's not what we've been calling for - an end to metered access. We applaud the fact that it's moving in the right direction and signifies an end to the biggest barrier to getting online - the local call charge, but it's not enough," said AOL spokeswoman Maggie Gallant.
"Our conclusion is they're trying to head off the unmetered debate. We're saying [unmetered] has to be the next move, and this is really just an interim measure," she added.
Independent campaign group, the Campaign for Unmetered Telecoms, said the move was "basically a bundled packet of minutes," adding that there is "still a long way to go" in their campaign.
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