The European Union (EU) plans to enter the debate over flat-rate Internet fees at an EU summit in Lisbon next month, according to yesterday's Financial Times.

Portuguese prime minister and current EU president, António Guterres, said that the issue of cheaper telecommunications charges would be on the agenda for the March 23-24 summit on growing Europe's knowledge-based, Internet economy.

European telecommunications carriers are coming under increased pressure to bring Internet telephone charges in line with those in the US, as a way to promote electronic commerce and Internet activity in Europe.

One goal of the summit is to agree a plan for an EU-wide reduction in local telephone costs, Guterres said in the interview. The summit will also discuss the development of a trans-European broadband network.

Hotting-up The debate over lower Internet access rates throughout Europe has been heating up in recent weeks. In a speech delivered on February 16, chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown called on BT to accelerate the lowering of Internet access rates, as well as moving ahead of the July 1 deadline for unbundling the local phone network.

BT responded to Brown's charges with a statement asserting that regulatory red tape has slowed its efforts to introduce its planned unmetered pricing scheme, which BT calls SurfTime. The plan has "not yet been introduced as we are bogged down in regulatory approvals which are much more complex here than in other countries", BT said.

Deutsche Telekom also recently responded to the call for flat fee Internet access. Speaking at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover, Germany, last week, Deutsche Telekom's chairman and chief executive officer, Ron Sommer, said he was against one flat-rate fee for online users. But he added the carrier will shortly introduce a variety of flat-rate offers aimed at different kinds of users.

"A flat-rate like that in the US makes little sense. You have infrequent users subsidizing frequent ones," Sommer said.