Thanks to recent antics in the UK ISP market, you may be under the impression that broadband internet access now comes free with everything.

The Carphone Warehouse put the cat among the telecom pigeons last May by announcing its TalkTalk "free broad-band forever" service.

Since then the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has made them remove the word "forever" but let them keep the word "free" in their advertising campaign.

Seems that ASA think "forever" is too long to keep a promise yet "free" is an accurate description of TalkTalk's commercial proposition. Now broadband is being offered "free" from just about everyone.

Recently Orange, Sky, Telewest and Namesco have joined the race to out-free each other.

In case you are wondering, "free" at TalkTalk means having a £239 a year landline contract, "free" at Orange means having a £360 a year mobile call plan and at Sky "free" is some-where between nothing and £16 a month.

It's not clear how much "free" broadband is going to cost you from Telewest yet, as they don't intend joining the altruistic party until September, but it will probably involve having a service from their new acquisition, Virgin Mobile.

Last Friday saw Namesco launch its "free" broadband services. This is actually gratis, as in the conventional meaning of the word "free" - but only for 12 months when "free" becomes £10.95 per month.

I asked if I got "free" broad-band with the round of drinks I bought last night, but the barman thought I was being facetious.

However, as the wise men know, free is very seldom a good deal when it comes to quality of service.

Of the 340,000 who subscribed to TalkTalk before the beginning of June, only a third have actually been connected to the internet service.

The lucky few who have are becoming disillusioned with the word "free" and have gathered together at http://talktalkhell.wordpress.-com to complain - although presumably they must be using some other provider to access the site.

The site documents support horror stories, like it taking up to two hours to get through to the help desk then finding little if none, intelligent life at the end of the phone.

Support issues aside, the bandwidth limits imposed by all the "free" packages are equally unwelcome (all are less than 8meg). You are going to need at least 10meg if you are going to regularly consume high-quality video content on your PC.

Some small businesses, despite needing more customer service, rather than less than larger organisations with inhouse IT staff, will no doubt be tempted, especially if they are already big mobile phone users. However, the biggest reason for resisting is quality of service. Providers who offer "free" broadband are likely to try and put as many customers as possible onto the same network, to keep costs down, but even an 8meg connection can look like paint drying when you are sharing it with hundreds of other users.

* Chris Tomlinson is MD of internet consultancy WAA WebXpress. Other unedited articles can be found at E-mail