Perhaps you didn’t notice anything unusual or particularly different about the transition from June to July this year? True, it heralds the first full summer month and the beginning of ‘Q3’ for those of a financial bent, but there are less innocuous and divisive goings-on behind the scenes that you possibly should be aware of, and it concerns your future telephone bills. You see, from the beginning of July, something rather spectacular happened to the way in which you are to be billed for calling any telephone number that begins with 08, 09, or 11. Most won’t even realise what has happened until the first bills relating to these calls are received. More’s the pity for those receiving quarterly bills, as their surprise could well end up being multiplied three fold. Either way; prepare yourself for a shock: a price hike has been slipped in via the side door, cunningly disguised as a well-intentioned attempt to make things clearer for you, the loyal consumer.
The change concerns only those telephone numbers, or so called ‘service’ numbers that have traditionally been the cause of much confusion and anger when it comes to bill time. They are those beginning with ‘08’, ‘09’, or ‘11’. And while much has been said about the change to freephone calls, little has been said about the true changes behind the charges for those that are not free. The main thrust, and no doubt honourable, intention behind the changes was to make things easier for consumers to understand in terms of how the total cost of a call is determined; but did anybody bother to explain that as part of that very process, the actual cost of calling many of these numbers is set to go through the roof?
Who among us hasn’t dialled one of these pesky service numbers at some time or another? Whether it’s to directory services (118xxx), an 0845/0870 customer service number, or even one of those win-a-tax-free-lifetime-of-luxury TV competition lines beginning with 09? Even so called ‘freephone’ numbers beginning ‘080’ could cost upwards of 40p per minute to call from some mobile providers. Free? I think not.
Prior to July 2015 the cost of calling service numbers from landlines ranged from a few pennies in the case of ‘08’s, to several pounds per minute, for the infamous ‘09’s. As the mantra went: “Higher rates may apply to calls made from other providers, and call from mobiles may cost significantly more.” The confusion over how much they cost to call was always a source of contention, and had been traditionally compounded by different providers charging different rates; whether you happen to be dialing from a mobile or a landline; whether you subscribed to a monthly call bundle; which calling plan you were on, and so on. No wonder we have been so confused, and no wonder the UK regulator is regularly upbraided for not doing enough to clarify things.
Previously, companies using these numbers had to go out of their way to ensure that consumers were aware of the costs involved. This applied mostly to the more expensive ‘09’ numbers, but is increasingly being applied where the less expensive ‘08’ are concerned. Indeed, we have become accustomed, nay jaded, with adverts accompanied by the vaguely hurried and obligatory sub texts of “calls to this number are charged at £1.54 per minute, other providers may charge more” etc. But, while most of us may not be in the habit of making that many calls to 09 (‘entertainment’ and information services) or 118 directory numbers – which can get very expensive at the per minute level – the situation is quite different where those starting with ‘08’ are concerned: 08 numbers previously costing several pennies per minute to dial are going to become much, much more expensive in most cases, once the total call cost is taken in to consideration. The only notable exception is that freephone numbers beginning 080 will go from costing up to 40p per minute from some mobiles, to zero: they will actually become free.
Despite previous best endeavours to ensure some degree of clarity relating to the charges made when calling these numbers, Ofcom recently decided that things were not sufficiently clear enough, and – after due consultation – initiated a major set of changes to the way in which we will be charged, coming in to force from the beginning of July 2015. The changes relate only to so called ‘service’ numbers (those beginning with 08, 09, or 11); and while the regulation may well compel providers and advertisers to exercise more care when it comes to the way call charges are advertised, no mention is being made of the fact that many are using this change to significantly increase the costs associated with calling these numbers. With the exception of numbers beginning 080, we consumers are going to be in for a shock when the first bills start to arrive, post July. True, the cost of calling such numbers will become somewhat more transparent – nobody is questioning this – but has anybody realised that there has also been a hidden price hike arising from the new per-minute ‘access’ charge, which has replaced the one-off per call ‘connection’ or ‘set-up’ charge? The key difference to note here is a change from per call, to per minute.
Previously, providers would typically levy a one-off charge for connecting or ‘setting-up’ a call, ranging from nothing, to tens of pence per call. The cost of a ten minute landline call to an 0845 or 0870 number would therefore be made up of the one-off call connection charge – say 15p – plus the 1p per minute charge levied for each minute of the call’s duration. Total call cost? 25p, or thereabouts. From July, we should be so lucky. The equivalent scenario in a post June 2015 world looks like this: the once ‘one-off’ call connection fee has now been replaced with a flat ‘per-minute’ access charge, set by your provider for the privilege of accessing their network. Then in addition to this, the number you are calling determines how much you will be charged per minute to have the call conveyed to the person you wish to speak to. So, if Provider A has an access charge of say 15p per minute, and you are calling an 0845 number hosted by Provider B with an advertised service charge of 1p per minute, then you, the customer, will be billed at a total rate of 15p + 1p = 16p per minute for this call. Compare this to the pre-July total cost of 25p, and the same ten-minute call now costs £1.60. Ouch. Further confusion also arises where the next 0845 number you call may be billed at as much as 7p per minute for the service charge element, resulting in a total call cost of £2.20 for our ten-minute call. Double ouch. Fancy calling an 087 number at 13ppm? Be prepared to see £2.80 added to your bill for that 10 minute call. Ouch again.
Either way, consumers are going to be faced with an eye-watering hike in the cost of calling service numbers from landlines (they were, and will continue to be uber-expensive from mobiles, so not much change there). Those of you with a keen eye for detail may have also noticed that the main contributor to the hike here is not the per minute service charge cost, but the new per minute ‘access’ charge being levied by your provider. Something that was previously a ‘one-off’ call connection or set-up charge – if it existed at all – has now mysteriously yet magically morphed in to a per minute access charge.
The main thing to remember here is that the per minute access charge is set by your provider (different access charges apply between the landline and mobile services of the same provider, though), and the per minute service charge is determined by the provider that hosts the number you are dialing. So, as you will now see, the onus lies not only with the owner of the number to declare the per minute cost of calling every number they advertise, but also on you, the ultimate bill paying consumer, to check and be aware of the combined per minute access+service charge that will relate to every 084, 087, 09 or 118 number called from July.
So, exactly how should one proceed in light of this information? First things first: get familiar with the terms and conditions of what is, and what is not included with your landline and/or mobile calling plan or add-on bundle. Check the section of your provider’s web site that details post-June charges to service numbers. Make sure you understand their access charge, as it applies to service numbers called from mobiles and landlines (the two can differ significantly). Print-off the relevant web pages and keep them handy for future reference; especially when it comes to bill time. It may be that certain service numbers are included in your plan/bundle up to a maximum number of minutes per month, and this indeed seems to be the case for some mobile business tariffs at present. Whether these include the new ‘per minute’ access charge or not though, you will need to carefully check. Your provider may well advertise ‘free’ inclusive calls to ‘08’ numbers, but does that mean the service charge, access charge, or both are inclusive? If at all possible avoid calling any numbers beginning 084, 087, or 118 – especially from your mobile. If you really must call 084 or 087-prefixed numbers, insist that the company you are calling provides you with an alternative 01/02 number, or undertakes to arrange an equivalent 03 number that you can call them on in future; these numbers are effectively free to call from mobiles, providing that you remain within your monthly allowance. For these reasons, many responsible companies have already made the transition from 08 to 03 for customer support and call centre operations, which, along with numbers beginning with 01 and 02, are treated in exactly the same way when it comes to inclusive minutes in your mobile or landline plan.
You may be interested to learn that any call centre or company you call that claims not to be able to replace their 084 or 087 number with an 03 number may not only be breaking the law soon, but may also likely be telling a few fibs. You see, some time ago, Ofcom reserved equivalent ‘03’ numbers for the holders of all 084 and 087 numbers; thereby removing any excuse for ‘08’ numbers not to be transformed in to a corresponding ‘03’ number. The move was designed to ensure that it would be a simple task for any company to switch their incumbent ‘08’ number to an ‘03’ number. Here, the ‘8’ is simply replaced with a ‘3’: 0845 becomes 0345; 0870 goes to 0370, and so on. The rest of the number remains the same. A call centre previously using the number 0845 499 1234, therefore, could begin using 0345 499 1234. Similarly another call centre with the number 0870 616 1234 could change to 0370 616 1234. In following this simple formula, once expensive ‘08’ numbers instantly change in to not so expensive ‘03’ numbers, which become part of most all bundles and calling plans, along with 01 and 02 –prefixed numbers.
Let us now carry out a bit of a reality check, and imagine a scenario common to most-all of us. You have just endured a 40 minute call to your favourite call centre in order to sort out some menial yet essential administrative matter. No doubt most of the time was spent on hold, listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It took just a few minutes to actually conclude your business with them, but you are now left wondering exactly how much you have been charged for the privilege. Take a look at the cost comparison table to work out how much those 40 minutes may have cost. If you are with a provider not listed in the table, then I apologise; your job will be slightly more difficult, as you will now need to trot-off and find out what your provider’s per minute access charge is for service numbers. If you are with one of the providers listed, I have done most of the hard work for you and calculated the cost of a ten minute call. However, before falling in to the trap of thinking that you merely need to multiply the cost of a ten-minute call by four, stop and think about the discussion so far. In order to find out the total call cost, you will not only need to know your provider’s per minute access charge, but also the per minute service charge associated with the call centre’s particular 0845 number – which can be anything in the range between 1p and 7p per minute. So now, you need to find some kind of reference to the number, whether it be a web page or newspaper/magazine advertisement, which has to clearly display the service charge associated with that number, by law. Do you now see how the information overhead associated with making calls to service numbers has actually become much worse? Do you see how annoying this could be – especially for those of us not quite at A-star level on the old arithmetic front? By the way, that 40 minute call to a 7ppm-rated 0845 number from a landline won’t leave you with much change from £7 in many cases. Don’t even think about making the call from a mobile, as it could be in excess of £20.
A few providers now allow customers to block the dialing of any service numbers at source. In other words, even if you attempt to call a number that is likely to attract an out-of-allowance charge – and this includes most service numbers – it will block the call from going through to start with. To activate this ‘blocking’ function, call your provider or find the area on their web site to do with ‘controlling your spending’, ‘block out of allowance spending’ or ‘call cost control’. I am aware of only two providers offering such options at present, but expect more to feature this once they realise that customer are beginning to understand the costs associated with service numbers.
Another alternative is to keep an eye open for the many ‘bypass’ companies that are likely to sprout up in response to the changes. Such companies will provide a service that will allow customers to mitigate the cost of calls to these numbers, no doubt in all-manner of creative ways, probably by offering a cut price per minute access charge, or they may even revert to a one-time call connection fee. While they may have no control over the service charge element of the call, they could partially discount this in return for having customers listen to adverts or some kind of promotion before the call is connected. It may be that you can ‘hop-on’ to their service via a smartphone ‘app’ as-and-when you need to call a service number, without the need to make any change to your underlying provider. These are all things that you will need to carefully look in to. Your situation is unique to you, and you will need to do your own research relating to your specific circumstances. That is, if you want to avoid getting stung by unexpected charges.
In the midst of all this disruptive and potentially confusing change, there is one refreshing bit of clarity on the horizon, however, for which we can be truly thankful to Ofcom (or could it possibly be Europe?): from the beginning of July, all numbers beginning with ‘080’ – commonly referred to as ‘freephone’ numbers – will actually be ‘free’. Whether from a landline or a mobile; call bundle or no call bundle; regardless of provider, there will be no service charge; no access charge; no nothing. “Free” really will mean “Free” on this occasion. (As ever, one exception does exist here: some providers will still be charging for the old 0500 freephone numbers until their planned phasing out at some point in 2017).
To summarise, things have indeed been made clearer in so much as the distinct elements – the per minute access fee + per minute service fee – relating to making calls to service numbers have now been separated. Prior to July, calling service numbers (even freephone numbers) was prohibitively expensive from mobiles anyway, so apart from a reapportionment of the total call cost between different parties, little has changed in terms of the total cost. What has changed, however, is the cost of calling from landlines. Something that previously did not need much advance thought now requires careful consideration and forethought before placing any call to a service number.
So, what do I think? On enhanced clarity when it comes to charges: maybe. On providers using Ofcom’s ruling as an excuse to charge extra for that enhanced clarity via a per minute access charge: no thank you.
This article was authored by Tuxtel (www.tuxtel.net). Copyright. All rights reserved.