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Spanish Netizens Strike for Flat Rates

Fighting to replace per-use dial-up charges with an American-style flat rate, Spanish Net users let their fingers walk the picket line in virtual "strikes" against the phone company.

With the slogan "Don't Call, Don't Answer, Don't Connect," users nationwide boycotted Telefonica de Espana, S.A., on Sept. 3 and Oct. 3. Strikers stayed off the Internet and kept phones off the hook. Strike leaders now prepare to negotiate with politicians and industry leaders.

"The important thing we've achieved with this is that the Internet is now recognized as a different medium, one that can't be charged at the same level as voice calls," said Juan Gabriel Covas, co-coordinator of Grupo Tarifa Plana (GTP). "Obviously a flat rate for voice calls would also be ideal, but it's been hard enough for us to make it understood that we need a flat rate for the Internet."

Despite current liberalization of Spain's telecommunications sector, the former state monopoly still controls local phone access, billing calls by usage time.

The strikes, organized by a coalition of the GTP, Fronteras Electronicas, Plataforma La_huelga, and Plataforma Tarifa Plana, protested the decision of the Spanish Ministry of Public Works and the Economy to raise Telefonica's rates for local calls over 160 seconds by 13.2 percent.

Miguel Perez Subas, president of the Association of Spanish Internet Users (AUI) called the decision "a serious danger to the development of the Net and electronic commerce in Spain" because it could double the phone bills of Net users. The AUI voiced last-minute support for the strike of Sept. 3.

After meeting with the AUI, Telefonica announced its Discount Plan, with discounts of up to 51.85 percent, on Sept. 15. Also, proposed BonoNet and MasterNet plans would sell vouchers for blocks of Net connection times.

GTP denounced the plans as marketing gimmicks and is preparing letters to pressure President Jose Maria Aznar, Telefonica, and the Ministry of Public Works and the Economy into formal negotiations for a flat rate. Spain's Congress has expressed support for a flat rate, but strike-prone user groups will continue lobbying the government and Telefonica until the adoption of concrete measures.

"In the heat of the moment people talk about aligning with the German and Italian strikes of November 1, but right now is not the time," says GTP's Covas. "At this point we can't jump into another mobilization. We're in that period just after the strike where we all have to move our pieces."

Disgruntled ex-users of NetSpain, a failed flat-rate provider, formed the GTP on Aug. 22 to defend the cause of flat-rate Net access. The unofficial group has since grown to more than 3,000 members and coordinates protests with a coalition of more than 10,000 users. It is currently applying for legal status.



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