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From...

Italians make waves with Net protest

October 22, 1998
Web posted at: 1:30 PM EDT

by Philip Willan

ROME (IDG) -- Italian cybernauts Wednesday launched their first-ever Internet protest against plans by Telecom Italia to increase the cost of local phone calls, organizers of the protest said.

Organizers of the protest used a Web site to invite Internet users to contact Telecom Italia's Web site and download information and thus blocking access to the site for other users. The novel initiative gained publicity on the front page of the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest selling newspaper.

"There is a pool of different organizations and individuals who support the initiative," said Vincenzo Donvito, chairman of the Florence-based consumer organization Aduc (Association for the Rights of Users and Consumers). "We are backing it and we have two computers in our office that are in constant contact with the Telecom Italia site," he said. "It's hard to say how successful we have been. The technical aspect is secondary. What's important is the media coverage and the fact that people are talking about this. Of late the press in Italy has only mentioned the Internet in connection with crime. For the first time people will start to speak about it as the instrument of communications par excellence."

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Aduc receives more complaints from the public about Telecom Italia than about any other business sector, Donvito said. "It nearly always ends up in court, and unfortunately, we are in the right in 90 percent of the cases which means Telecom Italia is providing its customers with a terrible service," he said. "Today's initiative is a first small step. We will only be satisfied when this ridiculous Timed Urban Tariff is abolished." In Europe, it is common for local phone calls to be charged at a per-minute rate.

"Any protest that makes people talk about the Internet and the problems associated with it is a positive development," said Paolo Gregotti, the secretary of Assinform, a Milan-based association that represents information technology and telecommunications companies. "What is not clear is who exactly has organized this, and that leaves me rather perplexed." The organizers' Web site (http://notut.ml.org) contains a number of e-mail addresses but no names or telephone numbers.

"The problem in Italy is that there are few people who use the Net. The government has done nothing to promote it. It has given subsidies to people who have replaced their old car with a new one, but it has never done anything for the Internet," Gregotti said.

The government is expected to reduce Telecom Italia's tariffs for long-distance and international calls while increasing the cost of local calls, a move Internet users fear will sharply increase the cost of surfing the 'Net. The new tariffs will increase phone bills for the average family by between 4 percent and 6 percent, organizers of the protest said in a statement carried on their Web site.

"Our objective is the abolition of the TUT, even if only for calls to Internet providers," their statement said. "It is better to pay a fixed (but moderate) fee."

"The initiative has our moral support but of course we can't engage in this kind of boycotting activity ourselves," said Roberto Cicciomessere, director of Agora, a Rome-based Internet service provider. Subscription to an Internet service in Italy costs around 300,000 lire (US$185) per year, making it one of the cheapest countries in the world, Cicciomessere said. But the average user was likely to spend over 1 million [M] lire a year on phone calls, a sum likely to deter many less well-off people from using the Internet, he said. Around 2.5 million Italians currently have access to the Internet, according to recent research.

Abolishing the TUT would be a mistake and would lead to the complete collapse of the Net in Italy, according to Giovanni Prignano, chairman of Flashnet, another Rome-based ISP. "There would be nothing to prevent people from remaining online from dawn to dusk. The abolition of the TUT on its own would have no positive effect on the market," Prignano said.

Marco Barbuti, CEO of Italia Online, Italy's second-largest ISP, and chairman of the Association of Italian Internet Providers, shared Prignano's skepticism about the practicality of abolishing the TUT, but he welcomed the online protest. "This is a novelty in Italy and, in principle, I think it is something positive."

Italian telecommunications have been liberalized in theory, but in practice Telecom Italia continues to dominate the market, Barbuti said. AIIP has denounced the former monopolist to the Antitrust Commission for abuse of its dominant position and the Commission is due to rule on the complaint by February, he said. Barbuti's association is worried that as many as 1,000 small ISPs could go out of business if Telecom Italia presses ahead with a plan to link up remote areas of the country to the Internet for the cost of a local call, and it considers that Telecom Italia Net is being unfairly subsidized by Telecom Italia's profits.

"We are accustomed to having a very tough relationship with Telecom Italia. Now we see that customers are also beginning to challenge Telecom Italia in an attempt to obtain less unfavorable conditions," Barbuti said. "The realistic solution is to keep TUT low and grant discounts to Internet users, rather than free marijuana for all."

Telecom Italia responded to the criticism by pointing out that its tariffs were set by the Communications Ministry, and that the cost of a one-hour local phone call between 6.30 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. is cheaper in Italy than the equivalent call in France, Spain, Germany and the U.K. People visiting Telecom Italia Web sites today had experienced no particular difficulty, the company said in a prepared statement.

Philip Willan writes for the IDG News Service in Rome.

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