Get off the phone? No need


It's hard to believe, but there may come a time when you can spend all day and night on the phone - and your parents won't even bat an eyelid. Well, they might worry that you'll fail the Leaving, and that your room looks like a squalid tip, but there won't be any more in yer face screaming about "the phone bill!!!"

In the US local calls have been free to most users for some time now, and over the last few years several European countries have begun offering free phone calls.

In Germany, Italy and Sweden, for example, you can make free local calls. In some areas, it's only for 15 minutes - at which point the call is cut off. But the real "price" you pay is listening to a short ad before the call is connected, and then again every two to three minutes.

Last October, BT offered customers living in particular areas 10 minutes of free phone calls every day, in return for 10-second bursts of advertising during those calls. In some parts of Britain, AdCall phone boxes were also introduced last year. Callers using these phone boxes have a choice of paying for their calls or listening to a 30 second ad in return for a free call worth 10p.

Complications may arise between friends. People availing of the free-call service have to complete a lifestyle questionnaire to ensure the ads they hear match their interests. Callers can request further information on the ads by pressing a button on their phone. Call waiting is already giving rise to major stress issues among the best of friends. Imagine being cut off mid brilliant-conversation so your mate can get further information on the sort of naff product their parents have expressed an interest in.

Of course, free phone services are not actually being introduced to ease family tensions. Some 80 per cent of British households are still not connected to the Internet - and everyone wants to get their hands on this huge potential source of e-income. Last week AltaVista announced free unmetered Internet access, NTL rushed in with its unmetered plan, BT in turn slashed its Internet prices, leading to offer its customers free Internet access for life.

What has been described as a `civil war' among telecoms and Internet service providers has broken out in Britain. It remains to be seen who will win, but, more importantly, how are the "civilians" (otherwise known as users) going to fare?