New tricks with the old dog and bone: Don't get hung up with BT; there are other options, says Jonathan Willis

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The Independent Online
I am fed up with BT. First they announced cuts of up to 60 per cent for weekend calls. That's good of them, I thought, when the company is making an overall profit of pounds 97 a second. But it was not: the cuts were part of price-reductions package (of pounds 500,000) imposed by the regulatory body, Oftel.

Then there was the advertising campaign in which BT claimed it had cut the cost of calls to North America by 3 per cent: as the Consumers' Association pointed out, all BT actually did was to increase the time allowed for each charged unit, so that after, say, 33 seconds BT offered an extra second.

Still curious why directory enquiry calls are charged at an amazing 44.4p - could it simply be that that sum is just below the level at which charges have to be itemised on the telephone bill? - I am even more puzzled by BT's decision to change the STD code number system on 16 April 1995. One estimate puts the cost of adding a 1 before every code starting with 0 at pounds 3.75bn - a dream for signwriters and printers but a nightmare for the rest of us. BT claims this action is necessary to accommodate future demand. However, there are already 400 million available number combinations and only around 30 million are in use. Most bizarre is that this upheaval does not even attack BT's problem: it will create more codes but no more numbers.

So if, like me, you are tired of BT's shenanigans, what other options are available? Mercury is certainly cheaper, but only on long- distance and international routes; if you spend more than pounds 12 a quarter on non-local calls it could be worth your while to switch. But Mercury is not, however, the only cost-effective alternative. There are several services to choose from - primarily for international calls although more are coming on line for local use.

Swiftcall, a privately operated London-based company which has leased a single fibre in a transatlantic optic cable, offers calls for 14p per minute to the USA and Canada. Compare that with BT's 47p and Mercury's 38p: you could save pounds 10 in half an hour. Swiftcall also has links to Australia, Hong Kong, India, Israel and Japan, and plans to extend its service. Customers pay an advance charge in pounds 50 units, run as an account.

It is difficult to compare costs- per-minute for rival telephone services as the price structures vary so much (many are based on a minimum level of telephone use). But as a rough guide, these were the weekday peak rates available to residential telephone users just before Christmas for a five-minute call to the US: BT, pounds 3.16; Mercury, pounds 2.50; Global Access, pounds 1.68; Mastercall, pounds 1.64; Swiftcall, pounds 1.50.

Fibre-optic cables have advantages of speed, sound quality and capacity - it has been estimated that one single strand could carry all the telephone traffic in the US on Mother's Day - and their use is spreading. Cable television operators are now developing telecommunications, and, working in conjunction with Mercury, will shortly be able to offer telephone services with cheaper connection charges and low-priced local calls.

Mastercall, a British operation that has agreements with US companies, is operating now. It supplies each customer with a personal telephone number - in the States. You call the number, let it ring just once and hang up. No charge is recorded as the call is not answered. However, the computer recognises your number and instantly calls back with a dial tone. Once through to the US system you can make calls worldwide, taking advantage of cheap US rates. Calls are billed to your credit card.

For inveterate users of the telephone there is National Voice Net. If you are a bulk buyer of phone time, you can pay an annual fee that allows you to make as many phone calls as you wish, anywhere in the world. Sounds too good to be true? No, because the charge is pounds 881 per quarter, which makes the service only really of use for businesses and families with teenagers.

Interglobe, another British company, issues a phone card. A freephone number puts you in touch with a computer which asks for identification. Once accessed, it allows you to dial as normal, and calls are carried over a series of BT and Mercury lines. Rates are much cheaper than at hotels and some pay-phones.

A recent development is American companies plying their trade over here. AT&T, one of America's largest phone companies, issues a free charge card, as does Sprint. MCI offers calls to any country from any other country at reasonable rates (useful if calling to or from expensive destinations) and some (Global Access and Datatel) have a Callback service where you pay only for the call you make and not the transatlantic connection.

Interestingly, all these companies offer free directory enquiries, just as British Rail offers a timetable for nothing. The principle is: why charge customers for a service which encourages them to spend more money with you? When you have registered with the company, you can circumvent BT's charges by calling the US system using a free-phone line and being rerouted back to the UK for information. It may require two satellites to obtain the number of Aunt Dolly's holiday cottage near Wolverhampton, but it is free. Ludicrous, but true.

Contact: Swiftcall (071-488 2001), Mastercall (081-992 0288), National Voice Net (0621 891776), Interglobe (071-972 0800), AT&T (0800 890011), Sprint (0800 890877), MCI (0800 890222), Global Access (0101 508 692 5709, Datatel (061 877 8835).

Useful reference: The Deregulated Phone Book, pounds 12.95, published by Running Heads (071-738 4096).

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