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Telcos In Need – please give generously

Are you sitting comfortably? Then beam into

The BT website is full of goodies like this, but few are as scary as this one. This is the list of the numerous ways in which your phone bill still manages to put on weight, even though regular calls to next door or Australia become ever less expensive.

The first thing to bear in mind is that although the rates may be shown a 1p a minute, there is a minimum charge of 5p.

The next thing to note is the now vast range of premium rate call schemes that are in place, it is truly humungous, and just as we lead the world in speed camera technology, we appear to leads the world in confusing phone billing technology, too. Although the chances are that most of the software is now written and maintained in India.

It is a given that the marginal cost of a phone call these days is almost nothing, so that anything the telco can charge is going to drop rapidly through to the bottom line once fixed costs have been covered. There are various regulatory bodies in place to keep the companies in this market on the straight and narrow, and not unsurprisingly most of that focus is on BT who still own monopoly sized slice of the business and always will.

I am puzzled why the time of day and week should have a bearing on the cost of a call. This weird notion probably has its roots in the days of operators when the tariff was fiddled to try and spread the load through the day to match the numbers of operators. It is now mostly meaningless and should be summarily done away with.

There is now a massive effort to conceal the cost telephone calls to avoid simple comparisons between the competing telcos. This is particularly the case with cellular operators who produce the most specious tariff “packages” in an attempt to present the consumer with so much choice that they can’t compare one service with another – but then most people will end up confused, and do nothing.

But when we move onto the area of premium rate call, blood starts to boil. This particular vent of spleen arises because I am being reminded by the BBC during the present Children in Need bash that “Calls cost 50p, 25p goes to Children in Need”.

Errr…. but surely that means that the other 25p goes to “Telcos in Need”..? So what’s going on here?

On the face of it, this is outrageous and the BBC is being naïve, or maybe worse. If a telco can process a phone call for 5p minimum (they actually do it for a lot less but I’ll give them a generous margin of doubt here) then what are they doing robbing the kids in need of 20p?

Moreover, what is the BBC doing allowing them to do it? Maybe that 20p is actually going to the BBC pension fund and I am doing the telcos a terrible disservice, but in view of the “unique way that the BBC is funded” and the nature of charity events, I would like to see a chapter and verse and syllable breakdown of that 50p so we know exactly where and how the money goes. Some impressive fortunes have been made on the back of the premium rate call services. From porn to ringtones, this is fabulous business where you can deal with thousands of customers for piddling amounts of money, and have no hassle collecting it, because it all gets stuck on the phone bill, and the operator of the service gets a lovely cheque once a month. Business efficiency heaven.

This service is widely abused, and a great example I once saw was an irritating fax shot with instructions on how to be removed from the fax distribution list. You write you number on the sheet and fax it back to the number given. The design on the paper must have been mathematically calculated to go as slowly as possible through a fax, while the punter is being charge £1 minute.

There are numerous scam that involve send an SMS message with an intriguing request to “call bob on 079654XXXX”. You call and there’s an answering machine that does its best to sound like a real person who after a very enthusiastic start, such as “Oh thanks – I’ve been waiting for you to call back – this is really important… “ and he then gets a call on another line and asks you to hold for moment. You hear the other conversation in the background, and human nosiness is such that you earwig away for several minutes (the conversation gets quite exciting),  without actually realising that you being charged a fortune for this scam.

Never mind hanging up the call, hanging by the neck is too good for these people.

Of course all phone costs should (and could) be displayed on an LCD on the handset be it DECT or cellular, but there is strangely little effort to insert this feature.

However, all telcos are about to have their fun ruined in a big way as public access to Voice over IP is about to start to make a push, watch for the first signs of the revolution. I just hope that no one manages to work out how to instigate premium rate IP numbers…