Forget the hype, forget the adverts, there is no such thing as free internet access. You can either buy a subscription-free service and pay for the calls or you can pay a flat-rate fee for unmetered internet access.
Back in March, when AltaVista announced its seductive plans to provide unmetered internet access for a flat fee, the world of rival internet service providers (ISPs) was turned upside down. They were caught out by AltaVista's announcement, but within days they too were offering their own "free" services.
But spring optimism has turned to autumn gloom as company after company has realised it can't deliver. When AltaVista originally announced its services, it said it would cost pound;30 to pound;50 a year. That estimate rose to pound;60 before the service was scrapped altogether. AltaVista let down 270,000 subscribers. Over at NTL more than half a million people signed up for the flat-rate service only to spend the next few months fuming as the CD- Rom needed to access the service failed to materialise.
When AltaVista withdrew the flat-rate deal it admitted that it was impossible to offer it without losing vast amounts of money. Other companies including LineOne and CallNet quickly followed suit.
The situation was not helped by the post-fallout finger-pointing. Some ISPs blamed netheads who insisted on being continually online. Others put it down to overwhelming demand. BT was named on several occasions as the chief culprit. Most ISPs rely on BT for part of the service they offer, and without a wholesale flat-rate tariff, they say it is impossible to offer unmetered access.
But cheaper internet access is back in the news with the announcement from AOL last week that it is to offer flat-rate unmetered net access for pound;14.99 a month. AL Flat Rate includes subscription fees and dial-up costs. AOL is planning a phased-in service, with existing members first on the list. It is, says AOL's UK MD Karen Thomson "genuine and sustainable flat-rate internet access".
AOL says it is able to offer a flat rate by securing a deal with BT. So it will be interesting to see what its competitors do and whether the service will last. Despite the earlier false starts, demand for the AOL service is expected to be high, so it's worth shopping around to see what else is on offer.
BT still has SurfTime, which costs pound;5.99 a month for evening and weekend use and pound;19.99 a month for unlimited access. WorldOnline has two main services, Freedom Lite and Freedom 24. The former costs pound;2.99 a month for evenings and weekends and the latter pound;14.99 a month for unlimited access.
Last week ClaraNet delayed its Freetime Anytime service but it still has its One For All account, which costs pound;6.99 a month with 1p a minute calls.
Demon's standard dial-up account costs pound;11.75 a month with an off-peak rate of 0.5p a minute.
Following the prolonged waiting times over the summer, NTL says there is now a two-week wait between signing up to ntlworld and logging on. Subscribers to ntlworld get the company's telephone service and limited TV services in the pound;9.25 package.
Of course price shouldn't be the only consideration. All providers have conditions and restrictions and the prevailing view seems to be that rock-bottom prices mean a bargain-basement service.
One place worth visiting to help you make up your mind is the ISP Review site at www.ispreview.co.uk. It has daily updates on the latest offerings, ratings for the ISPs and a sin bin section for the worst ones.