No such thing as a free Net lunch?

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Now Microsoft has dropped its free offer, AOL is cleaning up as a free on-line provider for schools. Paul Fisher reports

Free Internet access. Read all about it in the press and on the Web. Go, if you can, to the National Council for Educational Technology Web site. An item from November 1996 says that AOL and Microsoft are giving free subscriptions to schools. So why aren't all schools signing up?

Part of the problem is that subscriptions to a service provider are the smallest part of an Internet bill - on top of that must come teachers' time, newish computers, modems, phone charges and a commitment to spiralling subscriptions if, as the NCET seemed to suggest, schools should have multi-terminal access.

But there's also the fact that the good news about free Internet access is not as good as the NCET Web site suggests. The Microsoft Network no longer offers free subscriptions to schools.

That deal closed quietly in December, to be replaced by Pounds 15 monthly charges. As for Microsoft's free new Communications Tools for Schools - well, they're on a CD-Rom that costs nothing, except for the Pounds 9.95 that Microsoft charges for postage and admin. Oh, and you have to use Windows NT4. The CD-Rom has tools for an internal school Intranet as well as for e-mail and Web publishing.

Former Microsoft free subscribers are already turning up at AOL, the joint venture between America Online (with about 8 million subscribers in the United States), and the Bertelsmann publishing group. In its first year AOL has attracted around 150,000 UK subscribers, (500,000 across Europe).

AOL is now thought to be the only major provider of free Internet access for UK secondary schools. It will, according to events manager Richard Methuen, remain free "indefinitely" for secondary schools.

There are now roughly 2,500 school subscribers to AOL, including some primaries that are already publishing on the World Wide Web. AOL says schools are joining at the rate of about 50 per week.

A free account allows for one screen name to control a further four different screen names. So a small primary school could have one name for each class for example, or five teachers depending on how they want to use the account. And the account holder can use "parental controls" to determine the level of access enjoyed by users of the screen names. This could mean restricting access to news groups, for instance, tocut out access to anti-social material, or, if necessary, prohibiting e-mail from anyone not on the school's "approved" address list.

AOL subscribers have access to the massive resources of this international network including e-mail, chat rooms, conferencing facilities, on-line support and shopping, and a wealth of reference materials (the Independent and the Daily Mirror are there too, along with the Hutchinson Encyclopedia). The service is neatly integrated to the Internet with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, so if you come across a highlighted Internet address on the AOL network, just click on it and Explorer will take you there. Each account also has 10 megabytes of Web space to publish school pages.

Were you to pay for the service, it would cost you Pounds 5.85 a month and browsing time, after the first five hours, is billed at Pounds 1.95 an hour.

So what's in it for AOL? As with BT and Microsoft, there is big money chasing future business and also market testing a variety of products. With all the current talk of home-school links, it's also a clever way to haul parents on-line. Both AOL and its European partner, Bertelsmann, Europe's largest media group, are getting valuable experience in content provision with national curriculum areas from Anglia Multimedia, and an advice service for parents from the Parents' Information Network (PIN).

While this service is a natural candidate for dial-up access for computer and modem, it would not be an obvious partner for a school network. But because it is free, it is still attractive as a complement to the network, perhaps for the teachers in the staff room.

For schools without networks, and small schools in particular, it's an offer they can hardly refuse as long as they can afford the telephone bill. For those with a cable service that includes free local calls it's a dream come true.

But maybe that's all in the future. For the present, many schools are holding back in the knowledge there's no such thing as a free launch on to the Internet.

AOL 0171 0800 3765432 Web site: http: Microsoft 01734 270000 Web site: http:www NCET Web site: http:www.ncet.

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