Online Search Engine AltaVista is offering UK customers free (unmetered) telephone Internet-access - a move Net pundits say will kick-start an e-commerce revolution.

The venture’s initial launch phase in May will see the California-based company cover all phone charges for up to 500,000 subscribers - in return for a one-off £30 administration fee.

AltaVista says it will fund the venture “through e-commerce revenues and advertising”.

The company has already launched a similar dial-up service in North America, which now has two million users and is
adding about 10,000 more each day. Access is free, but users see a built-in advertising window when viewing Web pages.

Net watchers say the move will prompt UK-based Internet firms to follow suit, heralding an age of cost-free surfing.

Telecom watchdog Oftel paved the way in December for offers like AltaVista’s, by ruling that, from January, firms providing Net access could set their own call fees.

The move will ease British government concerns over the sluggish growth of e-commerce, which it has blamed on high Net-access charges levied by British Telecom (BT).

AltaVista UK marketing manager Andy Mitchell said: “This country is still lagging behind the US when it comes to exploiting the Internet. This is mainly caused by the high charges imposed by the likes of BT.

"By announcing free monthly access and free calls, AltaVista is hoping to increase the number of people online and the number of Internet-related jobs. This in turn will boost the British economy and place us in a competitive position with the United States."

Nick Gibson, senior Internet analyst with US-based research firm, Durlacher, said: "Unmetered Internet access could treble the time UK users currently spend online, giving the UK Net economy a massive
boost."