Let freedom ring
Although schools throughout the State may all be hooked up to the Internet, most people in Ireland still can't tell their mouse from their html. Over its relatively short history, the Internet has traditionally been regarded chiefly as a source of information. Information, in turn, is viewed as an educational resource, so providing access to the Net for students has seemed like an obvious priority. But while Internet companies are happy to attract young users, they need to broaden access in the population at large.
Increasingly the Internet is less an information tool and more a means through which business is being done, serious business, both globally and locally, and if you're not in - no, you certainly can't win.
But with a booming, indestructible tiger economy like ours, need we worry? Very much so, according to Karlin Lillington, writing in The Irish Times last week. "Over here we're now lagging behind dangerously in Net access options for both home-users and companies.
"This grim situation threatens to maim our ability to keep up, much less lead, in e-business," she writes.
In the US, where local calls are free, 50 per cent of households are online. Things are slowly shaping up across Europe. In a bid to suck the millions of households in Britain still not online into the fray, Internet service providers (ISPs) have begun slashing fees. Last week AltaVista announced free access to the Internet in Britain. For a once-off charge of between £30 and £50 sterling, customers not only get their access free, but they won't be charged for the local calls to log on.
Other Internet service providers responded by dropping their monthly fees, and offering free calls too.
Free access to the Internet has been available here since last summer. The communications company Ocean was the first to offer Internet connection for free. There were certain hidden costs, such as the £1 per minute charge for technical support (this has since been lowered considerably), but it proved very popular with consumers.
So much so that other companies, such as Esat Telecom and Indigo announced free Internet access within months. Eircom followed quite shortly after with free access through "Go Further for Free". This offer included unlimited Internet access at local call rates without registration, subscription or CD charges. Subscribers are also offered unlimited email addresses and space for the development of web-sites.
However, while it's nice not to have a monthly subscription fee, the real cost for users lies in the phone bill. Cutting out these charges should make a big difference. According to Lillington, "free or extremely low-cost Net access is considered by analysts to be the single most important driver for accelerating the use and growth of the Internet in Europe."
So what about free calls for us in Ireland? In-house bickering is proving quite problematic, it seems, and any possible developments in that department are on hold while network providers argue over interconnect rates, says Lillington.
There is a need for new legislation and the development of powers among telecommunications regulators. Unless things change quickly, "we'll all watch the international community take its e-business elsewhere," she writes.
We don't get much for free in this life. No matter what it is, it seems there's always a price to be paid.
How to make a profit without charging for a service is an interesting question. Until now, ISPs that don't charge directly for access have made their money taking a cut from telephone charges, website advertising and e-commerce.
With the phone call charges dying out as a source of income, that leaves advertising and e-commerce. Last year the amount of Internet advertising trebled in Britain. Here it is proving increasingly popular too. Your ISP home page (the first thing you see when you log on) is littered with ads. In some instances, if you try to get rid of the ad, the connection is severed. There are, of course, ways of getting on to the Internet and bypassing ad ridden pages, but fortunately for advertisers most of us are either too lazy or ill-informed to bother with anything like this.
Still, ads don't make enough money to keep too many ISPs running profitably. They will have to think of other ways to make their sites "sticky", and create different sources of income.
Making sites sticky means having something up there which will make customers want to stick with a particular provider. This could be anything from acting as a portal to a range of useful sites to offering banking services. Your home page may post football match results, weather forecasts or traffic reports, all to stop you moving on too far.
Some of the service providers that have not entered the free-calls arena in Britain offer "e-tailing" and information services to their customers. In other words, you may have to pay, but you're paying for content - which so far seems to be good for stickiness. But there are predictions that the Internet will be an ad-driven medium, in the way that television and radio have increasingly become. This, of course, has had an impact on the quality of the programming, and may have a similar impact on the content delivered by service providers.
Still, getting something for nothing may be the way of the future. As one journalist (writing in the Washington Post) recently speculated: "Who knows what else the New Economy could begin giving away for free? How about ad-supported cars . . . . Ad-supported beer? Ad-supported TV dinners?" And, really, the list is endless . . .