New low-end offerings to replace Zfree

The upcoming closure of the country's last free ISP has moved the goalposts with regards to cheap internet access.

The upcoming closure of the country's last free ISP has moved the goalposts with regards to cheap internet access.

On April 30 TelstraClear will close its Zfree ISP, which had been capped at 250,000 users since December 2000. Zfree formed part of Clear's response to Telecom's attempt to avoid interconnection charges under the agreement between the two companies.

That agreement has now fallen by the wayside and TelstraClear has decided to close the ISP. However TelstraClear claims its decision is directly related to the global downturn in e-marketing.

"The tough operating environment has affected on-line businesses around the world and Zfree has not been an exception [and] it is no longer a viable commercial proposition," the company says in a statement."

Zfree's impending closure has lead to a number of offers to take on Zfree users, the first of which is from ClearNet itself, with its Home 150 package.

TelstraClear internet product manager Carollyn Chaplin says the new package is the result of extensive customer assessment.

"It's a plan that's backed up by market research and it's a price point that sits nicely in the market with our other offerings."

Chaplin says Home 150, which costs $14.95 for 150 hours per month, does include free support for users – Zfree users were faced with 0900 phone calls for support.

"We're targeting it as our entry level product and it doesn't have any frills like web hosting and so on but it does have support, yes."

The offering includes five email addresses and for ClearNet customers switching to it includes the first month of connectivity free.

Newly formed ICONZ is also offering a low-end deal to former Zfree customers. At $19.95 a month for unlimited access there is also no set-up fee and the first month is free for Zfree customers.

Ihug's equivalent, the Utopia plan, includes 250 hours for $18.95 per month, 5MB of web hosting, five email addresses and cheap toll call deals as well as two separate support lines.

"We have the usual line for connection problems and modem issues and the other software support line for people having trouble with applications and so on," says Ihug partner Tim Wood. Utopia is available for any user to join and isn't restricted to former Zfree users.

TelstraClear also has competition from itself. Paradise, the ISP owned by what was TelstraSaturn, offers 250 hours connection per month for $20 with six email addresses and 10MB of web hosting.

Xtra spokesperson Matt Bostwick says he doesn't expect to see a large number of migrants from the Zfree service.

"Many people using Zfree already had an ISP for back up so I don't think we'll see quite as many as you would otherwise expect."

Bostwick says Xtra will happily talk with any customer wishing to switch to Xtra, saying the company prefers to talk through a customer's needs with them.

"I think there will be a broad range of customers from Zfree from those wanting a basic service through to perhaps the unlimited dial up customers or potential JetStart users."

Xtra will waive the joining fee and give the first month's connection free for Zfree customers who call on Xtra's 0800 BUYXTRA number.

Xtra's packages include the Xtra Daytime Pack where people have unlimited internet access between 11pm and 5pm for $19.95 a month; and the Xtra Value Pack which allows for unlimited surfing for $27.95 (this includes toll call deals and Cyber Patrol software).

Meanwhile, online auction site TradeMe is still reporting a roaring trade in second hand Zfree accounts.

Fourteen such auctions are currently underway, with one account selling for $25. The new buyer presumably is happy to pay that for "unlimited" surfing until the end of April.

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