THOUSANDS of Internet users who have been dodging a $5.40 an hour charge paid to Hongkong Telecom have been told the bargain is over. Yesterday, the Government said the charge had to be paid for every minute users were connected to the Internet via dial-up links, including the popular World Wide Web, and not just for small amounts of time spent using electronic mail, as many had hoped. Asia On-Line vice-president Michael Dunn said the charge was 'excessive and unjustified', but welcomed the move to put all users on the same footing. His firm is one of the largest Internet companies. Months of wrangling over the charge should finally be laid to rest by the announcement, said Office of the Telecommunications Authority director Alex Arena. 'People have been giving all sorts of reasons why this charge should not be paid. But now we've clarified the law they will have to comply,' he said. Hongkong Telecom stands to reap more than $1 million a month from the charge. The fees are paid to Hongkong Telecom as compensation for the epic phone calls made by Internet users to their information service providers. These providers are the local companies that link users to the worldwide computer network. As they are local calls, Hongkong Telecom would normally not charge for them. In March, the authority told service providers to start using special 300-series numbers that are metered at the rate of nine cents a minute. Internet companies had to pay the bills and then collect the cash from their customers, on top of the charge from the Internet company, ranging from $6 to about $15 an hour. But thousands of users dodged paying the charge with the help of their service providers, which have ignored the instruction to move to the 300-series numbers. 'These people will have to change their lines,' said Mr Arena. He said Hongkong Telecom would have to offer new lines 'in a quick and fair manner' and that the phone firm could cut off any Internet companies that did not pay their bills within 14 days. He left open the question of whether Hongkong Telecom could demand back-payments from Internet companies, and whether these companies would then demand back-payments from their customers. For a typical user, payments back to March, when the authority made its first ruling on the issue, would amount to $1,000.