Ireland set for flat-rate Net by June

Eircom expected to fight

Flat-rate Internet should become a reality in Ireland by the end of June, after ComReg said it would force Eircom to sell the service to other telecoms.

The widely expected move follows years of bitter disputes over the provision of wholesale FRIACO (Flat-Rate Internet Access Call Origination), with entrant telecoms, lobbying groups and consumers all calling for former monopoly Eircom to begin selling the service. With a FRIACO decision in place, Eircom and other operators will be able to sell consumer Internet services that allow users to remain connected to the Net for unlimited periods of time at a fixed monthly price.

ComReg's Decision Notice, which was issued on Tuesday, will force Eircom to begin selling wholesale flat-rate Net services by the end of February 2003, with services available to consumers by the end of June 2003. The move comes after the Minister for Communications, Dermot Ahern, published a draft policy directive late last year that, among other things, directed the communications regulator to focus on the introduction of flat-rate Internet access.

Amid all of the clamouring for flat-rate Internet in the press and among consumers over the past three years, ComReg's predecessor, the ODTR, was unable to force Eircom to introduce the service because no formal request had been made. It was only in July 2002 that two Irish telecoms formally requested that Eircom introduce such a facility, and when negotiations broke down in November, ComReg was able to step in.

Telecoms in many other EU states already offer flat-rate Internet, including firms in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. FRIACO-based Net access is also currently available in Germany, although a recent court decision there is thought to have put the service at risk.

David Long, the chairman of pressure group Ireland Offline, one of the most vocal organisations pushing for the introduction of the service in Ireland, described the news as important. "We are delighted with this. It is exactly what we wanted and have been working towards for almost two years now," Long said.

He added, however, that with no formal pricing structure in place, the group remained cautious and was concerned that Eircom's wholesale rates could be prohibitively expensive. The ComReg decision said only that Eircom's product must be "cost-oriented" and a ComReg spokesperson refused to elaborate on this. Long said any price above €35 per month for consumers would be excessive.

Esat BT also greeted the news with enthusiasm, with the firm's director of communications, Una McGirr, saying the announcement was satisfying. "But the devil is in the detail," McGirr warned, suggesting that further industry wrangling could hinder the launch. When Esat begins selling a flat-rate service, the company is aiming to price it between €25 and €30 per month.

Other industry watchers said that they expect Eircom to fight ComReg's decision tooth and nail. One insider commented, "For Eircom to spend €50,000 a day fighting this in the High Court would be a small sum if they really did not want to introduce the service." For its part, Eircom said it had no immediate comment on ComReg's decision.

A ComReg spokesperson meanwhile pointed to EU legislation which says that any dominant fixed-line telecom must meet "certain obligations" in providing access to the network if "reasonable requests" from entrant telecoms are made.

© ENN

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