Broadband service provider Telewest will charge customers who call its previously free helpline from 1 March 2003 at local-call rates.

"We are sending out letters to existing customers over the next few weeks informing them of these changes. We will be charging customers at local rate, but we still believe it's pretty good value for money," said a spokeswoman at Telewest. "As I'm sure you're aware, BT charges 50p a minute and Virgin and NTL charge £1 a minute."

But many customers will argue that they were attracted to Telewest's broadband services due to the free customer support.

Telewest insists it is making the changes "to maintain the high level of 22/7 service we currently provide".

"The cost of a few pence per call still represents one of the lowest technical support rates among our competitors.

"We have already made many improvements to the range of additional support services available to our customers, such as the introduction of a free instant support tool and will continue to develop these alongside the phone service," said David Hobday, deputy managing director at Telewest Broadband.