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French Authority Recommends Net Access Rate Cut

The French telecommunications regulation authority announced this week that it had advised the government to ratify a France Telecom proposal that would set a FF100 (US $16.6) flat rate for 20 hours of telephone connection to ISPs.

However, the authority flatly rejected as anti-competitive a France Telecom stipulation that would limit availability to Internet users connecting via networks that FT exclusively controls.

Although the ministry of Industry and Telecommunications indicated it would accept the recommendation, France Telecom is unhappy with the ART's conditions. Meanwhile, the Internet consumer watchdog group ADIM called the proposal insufficient.

"The flat-rate is not enough for us," said Bernard Martin-Rabaud, an ADIM spokesman. "We met France Telecom in January and we agreed upon a 40h flat-rate."

France Telecom has reportedly taken the position that the changes to its proposal amounted to forcing it to subsidize the competition. A company spokesperson said they would review the ART proposal and respond soon.

The ART would require France Telecom to make the special rate available to all Internet users connecting via local telephone lines, including those controlled by alternative operators, who rent infrastructure from France Telecom.

"The Authority believes the development of effective competition on the market for Internet connection networks ... is an essential element for guaranteeing a plurality of offers available to consumers and ISPs," ART's president, Jean-Michel Hubert, said in his report.

France Telecom has a virtual monopoly on local communications, including cab le and ISDN infrastructures. Consequently, connecting to the Internet remains expensive, even without adding in ISP charges.

In December, after the first of a series of well-publicized one-day consumer protests co-sponsored by ADIM, the ART asked France Telecom to find a way to reduce high access costs.

In February, the operator submitted its complex proposal. It would cut the price for one hour of local connection to FF5, compared to the current 16.70 at peak hours (8am to 7pm) and FF8.70 after 7pm. However, the special rate would only be available on weekdays after 6pm, on Wednesday after 2pm, and weekends and holidays.

The Primaliste Internet discount -- FF4.30 per hour from 10pm to 8am for one ISP access number-- would continue and could be combined with the flat rate, such as when the 20-hour limit is used up. The discount registration and a monthly FF10 subscription fee.

According to ART, the flat-rate would put France 27 percent below the European average for local access charges, but would only benefit those logging on at least 13 hours per month.

ADIM said the June 6 Europe-wide boycott it had helped plan before the ART's announcement was still on.

"The advantage of the flat-rate is not much for big users," ADIM said. "It will still be impossible to benefit from advantageous prices in the morning and afternoon."