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French Court Decides Internet Help-Line Must be Free

Wednesday 15 August 2007

A Paris court has held that an internet service provider must meet the cost of ‘hot-line’ calls for service assistance, a decision that is likely to have significant consequences for all operators.

In this particular case, brought by the consumer watchdog Que Choisir, the ISP Free was severely criticised by the court because of a failure to properly ensure the supply of access to the internet, telephone and television services through the internet.

In their judgement, the court argued that the internet operator was held by an obligation of results. On this basis they were obliged to ensure the good performance of the service, whether directly by them, or by a third party. Thus, Free was not able to shield behind the technical problems of its supplier, France Telecom.

Charges for hot line calls to internet service providers have been a hugely controversial issue in France, as is also the case in many other countries across Europe.

Until last year, not only was the call time itself charged to the client, but also the waiting time in the queue to receive a response. As this waiting time can sometimes be very lengthy, many people have been running up substantial telephone bills when they seek to resolve their internet problem.

In response to consumer pressure, last year the government passed a law that outlawed the practice of charging for waiting time. However, the Paris court considered that the service providers need to go even further.

The French telecoms regulatory authority has also recently argued that the help lines should be free of charge and a government committee has also concluded that the contracts offered by the ISPs are 'unfair'.

It does seem, therefore, that the screw is being tightened for the ISPs, with the real prospect that all could soon be obliged to offer a free telephone service and offer fairer contracts.

Without exception, ISPs rely heavily on hot line calls to provide them with a large part of their revenues, so the case could have major financial implications for them.

In a recent separate study carried out in the UK, internet services in France were found to be one of the cheapest in Europe, with an average price of £0.83 (€1.23) a month for each megabit per second (Mbps), compared to £5.60 for UK users.

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