Watch out for hidden costs;ISDN Connections

13th March 1998 at 00:00
They say there's no such thing as a free lunch, and some believe BT's much-heralded Internet offer for schools - which provides an ISDN high-speed phone line connection plus calls for an annual fixed fee - falls into this category. There are fears that BT is simply passing on some of the cost to the firms that provide Internet services for schools and that they, in turn, will pass them back on to schools.

BT's offer is a response to the Government's plan to create a National Grid for Learning and, on the face of it, BT's offer looks generous: schools get a free ISDN connection (worth around pound;200), with rental and unlimited calls (between 8am and 6pm, excluding weekends) for an all-in charge of pound;799 a year. It means that schools can use Internet services knowing what their phone charges will be.

But there is more to the Internet than a high-speed phone line. Schools access the Net via an Internet service provider. Some of these are less than happy with the BT deal. The most vocal critic is Edex. Its head of education support, Adrian Carey, says BT's charging system might look good for schools, but it is bad for the service providers who may need to raise their subscription charges. Alternatively, they might offer schools a lower-quality service or even quit.

Most service providers charge schools a monthly fee knowing that few will use their Internet service continuously so, effectively, schools share phone lines. But Mr Carey points out: "If schools opt for BT's ISDN offer, they are likely to use their Internet connection all day, every day, creating a one-to-one, leased line. We charge schools pound;1,500 a year for an ISDN leased line. BT is not giving anything away but passing the costs on to the ISP."

Edex's argument is that providers will have to provide each school with its own line: "BT gets extra business. No wonder it's happy with the deal."

According to Mr Carey, the options left open to the service providers are to raise subscription levels, share the line with a number of schools (which would slow the ISDN data rate to a trickle or make it harder for schools to connect), put on a timer to disconnect the caller if there is no activity after a pre-set time - or go out of business.

Tim Pearson, director of networking at RM's Eduweb service, approves of BT's scheme because schools will have fixed telecoms charges. "Our plan is to have fixed charges but at different rates, so that a small primary school with one computer will pay less than a large secondary on a network connection."

Mark Duddy, managing director of DIALnet, an educational service provider, adds: "ISPs which charge schools pound;1,000 - pound;2,000 per year will not be affected in the same way, because they already take into account the heavy usage."

BT's John Ferguson says: "The ISPs have been using the telecoms providers as the limiting factor in the Internet business; in the new model of fixed telecoms charges, that rule is negated and may be reversed."

He concedes that some providers could struggle to adapt: "Some may not have the resources I The deal was set up to allow for plenty of competition for all sides and there may be winners and losers."

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