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When Free Access Is Really Free

Customers in Tesco supermarkets have been putting "Free Internet Access" packages into their baskets, only to find that there is a 50 pence charge for them at the check-out.

So when is "free access" really free? The last few days leading up to the Bank Holiday weekend have seen some extraordinary turmoil in the UK Internet industry, with the first real challenge to the Freeserve phenomenon -- from a source other than Tesco.

Free Calls, Too
The new service from screaming.net, a joint venture between electrical retailer, Tempo, and LocalTel, a Surrey-based service provider for BT, offers free off-peak telephone calls as well as free Internet access. Since the cost of local calls in the UK has always greatly exceeded the cost of an Internet subscription, the move has been warmly welcomed by users.

Tempo deputy chairman Michael Kraftman has made it clear that screaming.net intends to poach Freeserve customers. Revenue will come from peak-time usage.

Mirror Follows The Sun
The Mirror Group Plc has launched a free Internet access service named ic24, as previously forecast on uk.internet.com.

The "ic24 is an exciting and influential development for Mirror Group which builds on our existing position as the fifth most popular Internet destination in the UK," said Mirror's CEO John Allwood.

Curiously, despite its commitment to the Internet, the Mirror's online site has not yet expanded to becoming a real-time news service -- and did not carry the top story of the day (the tragic murder of TV presenter Jill Dando) until the following day.

The Mirror's free Internet service follows that of rival newspaper The Sun, owned by News Corp., which last month launched Currantbun.com (the odd name is derived from Cockney rhyming slang).

Other recent free services have come from bookseller WH Smith and BT, and a pan-European service from the French Group Arnault. Virgin Net, another prominent ISP in the UK, has also dropped its subscription fee -- and has reported a huge increase in the number of users, now standing at 800,000 unique users. All of them will incur local-call charges.

Free Calls With Ads
Even the telephone industry itself is getting the "free" bug, with a new phone company, Freedom, offering users free calls in exchange for listening to radio-style advertisements.

The service starts on June 1, and will be followed later that month by a similar, pilot service from BT in the Tyne & Wear and Bristol areas. BT Freetime will be targeted at children - prime candidates for advertisers selling toys, computer games and fast-food.

Truly, there is no free lunch.



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