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Blair hails NTL Free Everything ISP plans

Goes live 17 April

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NTL boss Barclay Knapp will today announce a subscription-free, unmetered access Internet service for everyone. And - get this - Tony Blair will hail the service as a "significant announcement". Hats off to NTL, Britain's biggest cable telephony company, for squirrelling an endorsement out of the Prime Minister. But what will other Internet services have to say about this? And will the City mark down BT shares yet again? Blair will deliver his pat-on-the back for NTL, when he delivers a speech, announcing that every British citizen should be able to go online in the next five years, the FT says. "We have to make sure people are not excluded from this revolutionary technology," he will say, according to the FT. "We have to have an internet for the people. We have to democratise the new economy. We must ensure it is open to all." The FT carries an astonishing quote from "an insider at the prime minister's office", who says the NTL accolade should not be seen as a snub to BT. "We put pressure on the whole industry and everyone's responded," the insider said. "The NTL offer is a step change and a world first, which leapfrogs us beyond the US, but we are not anti-BT: they are part of getting the cost down." Clearly, the government has learned its lesson from the Brown debacle of a couple of weeks back, when the chancellor (with help from a misreported FT article torpedoed BT's share prices by calling for cheaper Net access). But what about the hubris of "the insider"? Blair is jumping on the free Net bandwagon. His government has done nothing to start it rolling. NTL is to offer its free Internet access service to everyone - not just customers, and not just people within its cable areas. The service goes live from 17 April, but it's not clear if there is a trial period. Users must sign Customers must sign up to NTL's telephone service and agree to spend at least £10 per month on telephone bills. NTL says it can make the maths work because it is able also to squeeze ecommerce revenues from the Net service and sell other packages such as digital TV on top. In other words, it's a cross-subsidy situation. But unlike Alta Vista UK, which announced its free for all ISP plans yesterday, this time it is not a content company subsidising a telephony business - it is a telephony company taking the plunge. BT is by law unable to cross-subsidise its services, so the free access plan should deliver a massive boost to NTL. ®

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