RealTime IT News

French Internet Users To Stage One-Day Boycott

The high cost of Internet access in France has some users so fed up they have decided to stage a one-day boycott on Sunday, to protest what they are calling excessive rates.

"France Tilicom is ripping us off," says Nicolas Graeve, a spokesman for the group IMC (which stands for French words meaning "A Cheaper Internet"). "We're asking people to turn off their modems on Sunday," he said.

With cable and ISDN access still rare here, most French Internet users log on through the France Tilicom's local service. In addition to a basic bi-monthly subscription of FF112 (about $20), local calls cost about $3 per hour from 8a.m. - 7p.m. and about half that for night and weekend hours. So surfing the Internet 40 hours in a month at standard rates costs $70-$130, not including an ISP subscription. A 20.6 percent sales tax pushes the tab still higher.

On Nov. 30, IMC claimed to have the No. 7 most visted French-language site (out of 9,832 sites hosted in France), with 5,000 daily hits. IMC is sponsorsing a mailing list.

Linking with similar movements in other European countries, IMC organized the boycott with ADIM (Association of Discontented Internet Users, originally created to represent users of France Tilicom's Internet service, Wanadoo.

Since 1996, France Tilicom, 62% state-owned, has drastically cut long-distance rates in response to fierce competition, but still has a monopoly on local service. In late 1997, the company eliminated a night rate for local calls after 10:30 p.m. that was three times cheaper than the business-hour rate. Recently, in response to complaints, it began a special Internet night rate (10p.m. to 8a.m.) called "Primaliste," for FF4.37 an hour (about 80 cents).

Boycott organizers say Primaliste is not cheap enough. They demand that France Tilicom establish a FF200 ($36, or about 30 cents/hour) monthly flat rate for four hours of daily Internet access. They also want improved connection quality -- for example, by increased access to Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Lines (ADSL).

For inspiration, Graeve points to Italy, where the parliament recently set the hourly Internet access rate at the equivalent of about US 11 cents.

"We're starting with much more conservative demands than that," said Graeve. "We're not willing to do employ the Machiavellian tactics Italian protesters used: Tens of thousands called en masse to overload the national telephone servers."

The Italian plan will not work in France, said a spokesman at FranceTilicom's corporate headquarters who asked not to be quoted by name, ""That kind of political decision to regulate costs is going to run into problems under European law. How are they going to pay for it?"

He added he didn't think IMC's FF200 flat rate would make it either. French competition laws forbid the company from offering local service at or below cost, he said.

This argument hasn't swayed protesters. Several major national organizations have lent their support, including the French Families Organization, Rural Families, the National Housing Confederation, and Worker's Force Association of Consumers (a labor union).

"This first boycott is a big test for us," said Graeve. "There are 2-3 million Internet users in France. I'm hoping 800,000 will stay off on Sunday. If it works, we'll ask for more price cuts. If not we'll keep trying."