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Can AOL turn the tide of free Net access by pushing for unmetered call charges?

Or is the Internet giant already drinking in the last chance saloon?

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Analysis AOL's public declaration last week that it was committed to the idea of unmetered call charges for Internet access must have taken many people by surprise. With such a high profile company adding its considerable bulk to this most Networthy cause, it will have, no doubt, cheered many advocates of a more liberal pricing structure for Internet access. But you don't have to be all that twisted or cynical to believe that AOL's sudden support of unmetered call charges has been done for any reason other than to protect its revenue source. Under extreme pressure in the UK from the tidal wave of subscription-free service providers, AOL is trying to play King Canute and stem the tide. But some people reckon they're going to get more than just their feet wet -- especially if the UK becomes a fully-fledged subscription-free zone. The fear is that if it happens in the UK the rest of Europe could topple. Such a scenario would be catastrophic for AOL. But what of the practicalities of introducing unmetered charges? It took Oftel, the UK's telecoms regulatory body, nearly two-and-a-half working days and a chat to their lawyers to come up with some kind of woolly response. The Register asked Oftel about the government -- could it drive through legislation to introduce the Holy Grail of Net? The wall of silence from the so-called experts was deafening. The truth of the matter is that no one knows how the wholesale introduction of unmetered call charges can be carried out unless there is an intense will and desire to do so. So does AOL have the will to succeed? When an AOL representative was asked how it could back unmetered call charges when it would, in effect, mean that pensioners’ phone bills would be used to subsidise Net users. "Give me ten minutes to think about it and I'll come back to you," she said. There's nothing like being prepared, and that really was nothing like being prepared. ®

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