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Exclusive: Free Internet access set to become the norm

Death knell tolls for subscription services, apparently

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Paying for Internet access in the UK is to become a thing of the past following the announcement that Callnet is to offer companies the chance to offer free access to their customers. The London-based company is in the final stages of negotiations with a number of major blue chip companies and an announcement is due later this week on Callnet's first corporate customer. "This is the death knell of subscription Internet services," said Aaron Goodman Simpson of Callnet. "As far as I know, this is the first branded service of its kind." "We provide exactly the same service as any ISP except we don't penalise people with one-off sign-up fees, forced advertising or expensive phone calls to premium call centres when they need help." Callnet -- which is running the service hand in hand with Cable and Wireless -- has been running a pilot for the last couple of months to prove that the model actually works and to iron out any glitches in the system. According to Callnet, companies who sign up to the service have to undertake to generate a set number of users -- anything between 15,000-20,000 a year. In return, Callnet will provide the service, manage the technical support helpline and take on the responsibility for administering the system. For their part, companies signing up to the service will receive a slice of the income generated by the local dial-up calls and benefit from the branding and marketing exercise associated with such a free service. Although its likely that such a move could accelerate the number of people signing up to the Net in the UK, it's more likely that subscribers will jump ship from their existing paid-for ISP to a free alternative. This announcement comes at a time when Dixon's Freeserve -- much criticised for its £1-a-minute charge for helpline support -- has notched up around half-a-million subscribers to its free Net access service in two months. ®

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