Malcolm Murphy – Is that Call Included?

Is that call included? Ofcom asleep at the wheel?

Here’s an interesting question to begin with: how much would it cost you to call a number that began 05xx? Would it be counted in your inclusive minutes? If you have a few minutes to spare, wander into a mobile shop or call your service provider and ask them. (But don’t be surprised if the answer is along the lines of “Er, dunno. What the hell is an 05xx number anyway?”

OK, so the 05xx number range is a little obscure (it’s been set aside by Ofcom for VOIP numbers). We should take something easy like mobile numbers. A number that begins 07xxx is a mobile number, right? And that’s included in my minutes, right?

Er, no.

While many, if not most, of the readers of SMS Text News will be aware that there are 07xxx numbers that either aren’t mobile numbers at all, or are not charged as such by operators, I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had with people who just aren’t aware that there could be an issue. (This includes people who work for operators!) Their view is the simple view that consumers have been given to believe – 07xxx is a mobile number.

In the UK, we have the illusion of a simple numbering scheme for telephone numbers. From that, it should be easy to understand what you’re going to be charged for a call. But it’s simply not like that. As one of the commentators to my post on reducing roaming charges pointed out, I should really have checked to make sure that my travel SIM really was a UK number and hence included in my inclusive minutes before I setup call forwarding.

The worst part is that the number ranges that may or may not be included varies from operator to operator. So a call that would be in my inclusive minutes for one operator would not be included if I move to another operator. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it is confusing, and the operators don’t help. Three, for example, list the excluded 07xxx number ranges on page 32 of their tariff guide, and they’re not even in numerical order. A quick check is not possible. O2 do say that Jersey and Manx numbers are not included, but don’t tell you how to identify those numbers. Three don’t mention (or if they do, I can’t find it in the tariff guide) 05xx numbers, O2 do at least tell you that they’re excluded.

And that’s before I come to the debacle that is 08xx numbers. These are the non-geographic numbers, i.e. the prefix does not indicate where the telephone line is actually located. Non-geographic numbers are useful for all sorts of reasons, which I won’t go into here. What I want to go into is the problem, which is that the 08xx prefixes set charging expectations: 0800 is a free call, 0844 and 0845 are charged at local rates, 0870 and 0871 are charged at national rates. All well and good, apart from two things: the concept of local and national rate calls doesn’t apply to mobiles (and I don’t think it even applies to landlines any more), and we now have bundles of minutes included with both landline and mobile rentals.

The operator response to these problems is simple. They exclude 08xx calls from your monthly allowances, and have a special tariff for them. It’s not even the same rate as your overage for calls. Nope, you’ll pay extra to call a number which was intended (or at least promoted to consumers) to limit the price you would pay to call someone. I actually have to pay more to call an 0800 freephone number from my mobile than I would pay to call any UK landline!

The charging expectations that I mentioned above just aren’t met by the reality. To be fair, I also get gouged by my fixed line provider, which is why I don’t call 08xx numbers any more. (Apart from 0800 numbers from home, which are free of course.)

Again, SMS text news readers will (mostly) say that this is a known issue, mention the website, and move on. But it isn’t a known issue for normobs, and instead of things getting simpler, they’re getting more complicated. The net result is that consumers are being charged for calls that they could reasonably expect to be free, or included in their package already.

You’d think that the regulator would be all over this, but as far as I can tell, Ofcom aren’t doing much. What they have done is open up a new number range, 03xx numbers. These are meant to be non-geographic, but the cost is limited to no more than a national rate call to an 01 or 02 number, and any calls must count towards inclusive minutes in the same way as 01 and 02 calls. There’s some woolly talk on the Ofcom web site about recommending that 0870 calls cost no more than normal calls, and that’s about as far as they go.

It’s not good enough. The rules around the 03xx range are a clear sign that Ofcom understands the issue. They just aren’t dealing with it aggressively enough. It should be the case that 07xxx are UK mobile numbers, no exceptions, and billed as such, and that 08xx numbers are included in bundled minutes and billed as if they were regular 01xx/02xx numbers out of bundle.

That this is not the case, and that consumers are largely kept in the dark about the resulting charges, should be an embarrassment to the regulator, operators, and industry in general.

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