Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Phone call costs: a complete scandal

Once the cost of a phone network is paid, the incremental cost per call to the operator is negligible. By far the biggest cost element in any phone call these days is an itemised billing process, and paying a marketing department to confuse the customers so they have no idea what actually costs what.

Isn't it astonishing that many people will now use a mobile phone when they are sitting/standing 3 feet from a DECT (fixed line) phone where the calls can be virtually free? Many have now become immune to paying anything from £30-500 a month for the conveniencee of leading a wireless cellular lifestyle. (Partly because the person paying the bill is frequently not the one using the phone.)

The biggest list of charges can be found on BT's site, of course. Once upon a time this was a simple single page listing the cost of calling all the different number prefix types. That was, of course, far too simple and convenient and allowed users to easily compare costs and realise who was ripping off who. So the marketing department has buried this in multiple clicks, and the result is incomprehensible enough to cause most people to take one look and not bother to look deeper. Job done!

Complain to BT about this blatant filibustering and they will use one of the standard references to the impositions of process by regulatorss, and that their hands are tied. Well then, let's do a proper job and tie their feet, place a black bag over their head, and then open the trap door.

It would be far too dangerous to offer users a simple calculator where you enter the number calling, the number called and the time of day (defaulting to current time) wouldn't it? However, I'll save you all a lot of trouble by telling you that 1899 is by far the cheapest solution across the board. operates a service where all any calls in the UK will cost you a flat 4p whatever duration or time of day/week. Overseas is even better: by way of example, as far as I am able to make out from the BT price list, using a "raw" BT line can be 3000% more expensive than 1899 when calling NewZealand: 31p/minute versus 1p a minute.

But just as technology has cut the cost to oeprators and provided numerous routing features, so it has provided a bonanza for companies who have climbed on the premium rate phone scam bandwagonn - which these days seems to be just about everyone including government, of course.

Many companies (and government departments) now operate 087X/084X numbers, and wrap it all up in specious twaddle about improved services. Crap, anyone with an 0870/0845 number is generally on some sort of revenue share with the service operator - 0870 yields frequently as much as 5p a minute. If they are not, they are stupid (or maybe the telecoms manager has a deal where the cash get routed straight into an offshore account?) Even 0845 numbers can provide revenue back to the company using them.

Our American cousins simply cannot believe that we Brits are being this stupid and compliant. No one there would deal with any businesss that didn't provide free 0800 numbers for everything - including complaints.

But you can frequently avoid paying the ~10p a minute surcharge if you just look at SayNoTo0870 to provide the geographic numbers of those companies scamming their customers by using 084X and 087X numbers. Or look for the "when calling from overseas" UK geographic number that some of the 087X scammers sheepishly publish. And then use 1899 to call them.

The UK regulatory body for the really outrageously priced premium rate services (PRS) is Icstis, and they (just) come under the heading of "better than nothing". Although quite how such a shabby industry has been allowed to establish and thrive is a mystery (do certain PRS operators "have the negatives", I wonder?), but ITV's crass misuse of PRS has eventually forced some sort of effort to curtail the more blatant abuses.

One of the more disturbing aspects of all this is the time and intellectual effort that has gone into creating these numerous "call plans" that are designed to do nothing more than confuse all users into submission. And worse still, is the prospect that many people must have been trained to understand and sell them; 4 dimensional chess is simpler.

This is job creation of the most pointless and worthless kind. But guess what? Just as with the deployment of snooping CCTV, privacy invasive DNA databases and stealth taxing traffic camera technology, Britain proudly leads the world!

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