With all the furore about free, nearly-free and unmetered Internet access it's hard to keep up with who's offering what, when, and how much it will cost. So with our Guide to Unmetered Access we've boiled it all down to the bare essentials.
We've listed all the players, the deals they are (or will be) offering and where you can go for more information. Just follow the links below to find out who's offering what...
Spurred the latest round of changes with its 'nearly-free' offering
Far and away the best free access site available
with calls costing 1p per minute 24 hours a day
and a wealth of information.
£50 one-off payment secures free access
Still facing criticism of its unmetered plans
CallNet 0800 / 4UNet
Now several months into its 0800 service
The new unmetered package arrives
The latest ISP to offer free(ish)access
The only 'really free' offering
Free access and low rate calls. Many more packages
Free, but not all the time
Earn free access time with paid access
Unmetered access, in certain areas
Trade shares to recoup call costs
Flat-rate connection for BT subscribers
Free access with low cost telephone calls
Completely free with low cost phone calls.
Unmetered access is seen as a way to encourage more people to use the internet for longer, thus allowing more e-commerce, with customers no longer reluctant to look through online catalogues or download information from the web. In the United States, where unmetered access is the norm, people log on, on average, three times as long as in the UK.
Why are other companies unhappy with BT's behaviour?
Many other internet service providers are sceptical of BT's motives.
They argue that because BT's service will only be available to other ISPs who do a deal with BT, it will drive many smaller operators out of business.
Many of BT's rivals are also angry that BT has taken so long to roll out new digital services that would allow high-speed internet access.
The telecoms regulator, Oftel, has now said that BT has to allow other companies to install the equipment for such services in its exchanges.
Is this a step in the direction of completely free access to the net?
Companies which provide free net access will still have to find some way to pay for the service, either through advertising on their site, e-commerce sales generated through links on their site, or telephone charges.
Some of the smaller ones may well be forced out of business by BT's move.
But the proposal does mean that there will be a bewildering variety of charging plans on offer. And in the free-for-all, most customers will probably find that by shopping around they may get a cheaper deal than they had before.