ESAT has opened discussions with Dell, Ireland's largest PC manufacturer, on pre-loading its internet access software package 'netsmart' onto Dell products, in a move sources said could be the precursor to a broader-ranging agreement to co-market broadband access and PCs.

Spokeswomen for Esat and Dell denied that any discussions had taken place. It is understood, however, that Esat has approached Dell with a proposal to pre-load 'netsmart' onto Dell PCs to target the lucrative Christmas PC market, in what would be a first-ofits-kind deal.

Sources also said Esat, which will have DSL high-speed broadband access in 40 exchanges by Christmas, is looking into the possibility of selling the cheap high-speed lines packaged with PCs. Any such co-operation with a hardware supplier would be likely, however, to raise regulatory difficulties.

Esat has joint marketing arrangements with FujitsuSiemens and Packard-Bell under which the IOL-Free internet software package is pre-loaded onto PCs. Fujitsu-Siemens products are sold through ESB outlets, which sell more PCs in the runup to Christmas than any other retail chain. The Packard-Bell PCs are sold through Dixons and Compustore.

Any deal with Dell on Esat's new netsmart product would be a first, as it would involve selling pre-purchased internet time.

Instead of paying per minute, customers would purchase a fixed number of minutes.

The package is targeted at evening and week-end use of the internet.