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Freephone? You must be joking

by Josie Sephton | Sep 14, 2011

When I opted for a mobile deal recently with enough minutes, text and web to satisfy my fairly modest needs, plus a decent smartphone thrown in for good measure, for a mere £10 per month, it seemed a pretty good offer - almost too good to be true, when I considered what my friends and family racked up on their mobile plans. The arrival of my first mobile bill under the new plan confirmed my suspicions, when it came in at 50% higher than I expected. However, closer investigation revealed that the culprit behind the bill-shock was a single, relatively short call to an 0800 (freephone) number that I had to make while I was away from my fixed line. At the time I made the call, I was forewarned that I would be charged, as these numbers fell outside of my monthly allowance. What I wasn't told was how much. In the whole scheme of things, the extra £5 doesn't exactly break the bank, but it illustrates how easy it is to increase monthly spend on calls from mobiles that are simply, at times, unavoidable - especially given the amount of customer service-type numbers which now begin 08 or 05, a typical prefix for many non-geographic numbers. A quick glance at the cost to call these increasingly prevalent numbers from UK mobile providers shows that, while there is considerable variation across the different providers, none of the charges are particularly insignificant, as illustrated in the table below[1]. Moreover, some providers charge the same for freephone (0800) as for 0845 and 0870 calls.

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On a positive note, there is a downward trend on some of these prices - Orange and T-Mobile, for example, recently reduced their charges to freephone numbers. While this is a step in the right direction, it is not one that has been taken by all providers, and overall, charges remain high.

In December 2010, Ofcom published a consultation entitled 'Simplifying non-geographic numbers', and while it is a very detailed document, it makes for interesting reading, highlighting issues such as lack of awareness around pricing, and the correspondingly high costs that consumers can face when accessing certain non-geographic numbers. Within the consultation, Ofcom proposed to standardise and simplify how non-geographic numbers are priced, to promote transparency and competition in delivering services through these numbers. Importantly, it also proposed to make 0800 numbers free from mobiles.

While this is good news for mobile users, until such proposals are put into force, users are still contending with high costs for non-geographic calling. There are, however, ways to deal with this. Software developer Slackersoft has developed a free app for Android devices which, when activated, will automatically intercept calls to numbers beginning 0870 and 0845 and, where possible, suggest available alternatives. Similarly, telecoms provider Skycom offers an app called 0800 Wizard. The app, which runs on iPhones, Android and Blackberry devices, is also free to download, and will offer an alternative 01 or 02 number when a freephone call is made through the 0800 Wizard dialler.

Since my ‘bill shock’ I have used both of these apps a lot, and I estimate that they have saved me a not-insignificant amount of money. At times, getting the right number can be fiddly, and it is not always a single step process. But it means that I have much better control over my mobile spend. And in the meantime, I will look forward to the day when non-geographic charges from mobile are more in line with those from fixed line, and in particular, when freephone from mobile is truly free.


[1] Charges shown are based on pay-monthly plans. Per call costs may also be incurred in some instances. 0800 refers to freephone numbers, which are free of charge from a landline. 0845 and 0870 refer to numbers that will incur a charge from landline, usually (but not always) in line with local and national call charges respectively.

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