Even the Government accepts that high call charges are slowing down the speed at which online services and e-commerce are taking off in the UK. The same applies to the government goal of forming a National Grid for Learning. In education, the cost of connecting to the Internet is a major concern and, as a result, BT introduced the Schools Internet Caller (SIC) service over 18 months ago. This offers schools an ISDN digital phone connection for a fixed fee of pound;790 a year. But SIC comes with strings attached: the connection is only "free" between 8am and 6pm on school days, and any calls outside these hours are charged on top of the annual fee.
One of the biggest critics of SIC has been the educational Internet service provider Edex, which is using the SIC service with a number of its customers. Adrian Carey, Edex's education services director, criticises SIC on both price and performance: "People's expectations have been hyped up about ISDN. We told the government that ISDN was fundamentally flawed because it's a telephone connection and ISPs have no control over it."
According to Edex, SIC has struggled to cope with the demands placed on it by schools. Many of them maintain a permanent Internet connection during school hours: "About 95 per cent of the faults experienced by SIC users can be traced back to BT," says Carey, "ISDN is like using a modem. When your modem develops a fault, you don't contact your ISP, but that's what many schools are doing and we're losing credibility as a result."
The 8am-6pm limit has also seen some schools caught out as their networks automatically dial out during the evening. Edex found that some school networks were automatically making over 60 calls during the night, leaving schools with large bills.
A lot of attention is now on the ADSL digital telephone connection, which will offer much higher speeds than ISDN. Adrian Carey argues that schools need a high-speed two-way connection to the Internet and that the DFEE should consider setting up the school equivalent of the high-speed Super Janet network used in higher education.
Carey's views are echoed by Tim Clark, boss of RM's Internet for Learning. While generally supportive of the breakthrough that BT's caller offer gave to schools, he points out: "ISDN is the ideal technology for the vast majority of primary schools who do use the Internet for an hour or two at a time, and not all day. However, secondaries need greater bandwidth and so require more affordable pricing for multiple ISDNlines or leased lines.
"There have been a few problems with schools networks connecting out of hours largely as a result of incorrectly set up networks or routers. The bills schools have received have been quite large and it is disappointing that BThas not been more flexible in demanding full payment for what is obviously an error"
BT is unapologetic about SIC. John Ferguson, BT's communications manager, says: "14,000 schools have signed up for SIC, and most of them have opted for ISDN. Before SIC, the number of schools using ISDN could be counted on one hand." BT says that schools are getting an ISDN connection for around 10 per cent of the true commercial rate: "One of the ways we were able to offer ISDN at this price was the restriction on the hours of usage," says Ferguson.
He adds that it is only a minority of schools that wish to use the Internet outside these hours, and that ISPs also wanted these restrictions to ensure that schools were not online during the busy evening session.
BT plans to launch ADSL this spring, although only around one in five schools will initially have access. It says it has asked Oftel to allow it to introduce a high-speed permanent connection (like a leased line) for schools, costing around pound;1,800 a year.
BT is planning to extend SIC and is currently in consultation with Oftel about introducing two new packages. One would extend the SIC hours to a 24-hour weekday service, costing schools an additional pound;240 a year, and a second would give weekend access for an additional pound;164 a year. This means that schools could have a permanent Internet connection for pound;1,200 a year, yet some cable companies are already offering this type of service for around half the price.
While RM's Tim Clark is pleased that BTplans to extend the tariff to weekends and evenings, he is critical of the proposed charges: "BT's extra costs for providing ISDN access to schools in the evenings and weekends must be close to pound;0 - since the network capacity must be there for peak weekday usage, and BThas no sales and marketing costs - so they should provide the extra hours for schools at no extra cost.
"BTis making a great deal of money from the NGFL - 14,000 schools have BTSIC, and BTgenerates revenues of at least pound;500 per school that equates to at least pound;7 million per annum, a substantial sum."
The problem is that BT has a stranglehold on what is called the local loop - the final part of the telephone network that runs into a home or office. At present, other telecoms operators have to pay BT to access the local loop, making it harder for them to compete on price - although BThas been ordered to open this up in two years time by Oftel.
Tim Clark concludes: "There is little or no competition in the telecoms market when it comes to the local loop. BTsets the prices high, and NTL (the cable company) sets its prices just below BT's. Only in cities where there are other providers does RM see real competition. "If you are a primary school in Cumbria then you have only one potential supplier and that is BT."
BTEducation Stand: D40www.bteducation.comEdex Stand: D120www.edex.netRM Stand: D50E50www.rm.com