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Ireland joins rest of Europe

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Esat BT has become the second ISP in Ireland to begin selling a limited flat-rate Internet product, readying users for a true flat-rate service next year.

NetSmart is the name for Esat BT's new flat-rate Web access service, which will let Irish Internet users log on to the Net at evenings and weekends for between 40 and 120 hours per month for a set fee. Three packages entitled NetSmart40, NetSmart80 and NetSmart120 will be sold for EUR15, EUR25 and EUR30 per month respectively.

The news of the launch follows the introduction last week of UTV's new Internet product, UTVip, which lets users surf the Web for up to 150 hours per month at off-peak times for EUR29.99 per month. However, subscribers to this service have to sign up for UTV Internet's telephony package. Conversely, Esat BT's new service does not require users to sign up for its telephony service.

What may be more important to many of Ireland's Internet users, particularly small businesses on dial-up connections, is Esat BT's plan to launch a true flat-rate product next year. The company said on Monday that it intends to introduce Flat Rate Internet Access (FRIACO) to Irish consumers from early 2003. The firm noted however that such a launch is reliant on the "successful conclusion of negotiations with Eircom, and the approval of the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation."

This proposed service will theoretically let Irish consumers and small businesses stay logged on to the Internet for an unlimited amount of time for a flat monthly fee. Esat BT said that under its flat-rate plan, users will pay a monthly charge of between EUR25 and EUR35, comparable with rates in the UK.

"The message we have been getting loud and clear from industry groups, state agencies, businesses and consumer lobbying groups is that flat-rate Internet access is urgently required," commented Bill Murphy, chief executive officer of Esat BT. "This is the key enabler in stimulating Internet usage in Ireland and to stop us falling further behind our neighbours in Western Europe."

He pointed to Nielsen/NetRatings from July which show that Internet penetration in Ireland "is lagging" at 34 percent -- the third-lowest in Europe. The Nielsen statistics also show that the average time spent on-line by Irish Internet users is less than four hours per month, well below the European average. "What's even more worrying is that less than half the people with Internet access from their homes actually use it when at home," Murphy said.

In the UK, flat-rate Internet access was launched in 2000, and that market now has 5 percent penetration, or 10 million homes, with figures on the rise. "Flat-rate Internet access is a key migration path to broadband," Murphy said. "As long as the metre is ticking, users will limit their time on-line, thus restricting their ability to fully exploit and enjoy what the Internet can deliver. Eliminate that cost uncertainty and the model changes fundamentally."

The moves by Esat BT on Monday mark the firm's second attempt to launch an economically viable, flat-rate Net access product. Its previous offering, Surf No-Limits, was cancelled last year when the company accused consumers of overuse, resulting in a wave of criticism from consumer groups that continues to persist.

© ENN.

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