Watch out for creeping rises in landline charges

As some telecoms firms have been finding subtle ways to raise their charges, Chiara Cavaglieri suggests how to beat the phone companies at their own game
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The Independent Online

The UK's biggest home telecommunications company, British Telecom, has told its customers that they will have to wait an extra hour to make free evening calls from April. Now the BT free "evening period" runs from 7pm to 7am, sparking a number of complaints and even a Facebook protest page from disgruntled customers who were enticed by the original 6pm start time.

"It is difficult to quantify what the change will mean to a customer's bill. However, there are a lot of people who won't realise these changes have taken place," says Michael Phillips, the managing director of comparison site Homephonechoices.co.uk. "Calls costs two to three times more during the day rather than the evening, so if you don't want to switch providers make sure you amend your calling habits."

Customers currently enjoying free BT weekend calls to landlines from 6pm on a Friday to 6am on a Monday will lose an hour on Friday nights and gain an extra hour on Monday mornings, when it is arguably far less valuable. As well as changing its evening hours, BT is raising the cost of its standard call from 9.3p to 9.9p per call and the cost of daytime calls from 5.4p to 5.9p per minute. Other changes include Virgin Media increasing its line rental from £11 to £11.99, again from April. Overall, consumers have faced rising costs across the board with connection fees jumping from an average of 4p per call in 2006 up to an average of nearly 10p today. Line rental costing £10.50 per month with BT and most other networks back in 2005 now costs £11.54 with BT or £11.49 with TalkTalk.

"The other thing we've noticed is that costs to mobile networks have increased," says Mr Phillips. "Networks do offer more inclusive calls to landlines but at the same time they're increasing the cost of calling a mobile. This is not a BT specific issue; all home phone providers are increasing costs."

Providers are well within their rights to change call plans and prices and there are no specific regulations about the way these changes are announced. However, there are stipulations and consumers do have a get-out clause.

"If consumers are being notified of a change, the provider must give one month's notice and inform the consumer of their right to terminate their contract without penalty if they're not happy about that change and it is of a material detriment," says Rhys Hurd, spokesman for regulator Ofcom.

Choice is the most powerful weapon in any consumer's armoury. Comparison sites such as Simplifydigital.co.uk and Homephonechoices.co.uk will make this process much easier. At Homephonechoices.co.uk, for example, you can use the drop-down menus to compare the pence per minute charges by different call types.

The first trick to saving money on your home phone is to compare line rental prices. The cheapest deal around at the moment is the Primus Saver package at £9.15 a month, including free local and national calls during the evenings and weekends. In comparison, BT line rental is £11.54 a month and that's only if you pay by direct debit and use online billing.

The next step is to consider which calls package best suits your needs. There are three main types of calls package: weekend calls, evening and weekend calls and anytime calls so pick one that matches your calling habits. If you're not sure, take a look at previous bills to work out where most of your money is going. If, for example, you spend a lot of money on daytime calls you may want to switch to an anytime package.

You should also consider bundling your home phone package with a broadband connection or digital TV service. There are some impressive discounts available if you combine several services from one provider.

"Consumers will tend to find that most broadband and home phone suppliers will have separate prices for standalone services and more attractive offerings for bundled packages," says Chris Williams, head of products and services at Simplify Digital.

For example, Orange charges £9 a month for its Home Select package (broadband only), but if you take the Home Max package and receive broadband plus evening and weekend calls it costs only an extra 50p a month. This will require that you take Orange line rental at £10.50 a month, but if you have an Orange contract mobile phone the Home Max package is reduced to just £6.50 a month, with the first three months free. Similarly, Sky's Broadband Everyday (10Mb) is £10 a month as a standalone product, but is reduced to £5 a month if taken with a Sky phone package. The most basic Sky phone package is SkyTalk Freetime, which is free per month and gives inclusive evening and weekend calls to UK landlines with line rental at £11 a month. However, you will need a Sky TV subscription too, costing from £18 a month.

Premium 0870 and 0845 numbers can also ramp up your home phone bills so check with your package to see if these charges apply. BT, Sky and TalkTalk offer inclusive calls to premium numbers, depending on the time of the day and the calling plan.

Price shouldn't be your only consideration, however, as many of the consumers' biggest gripes have to do with customer service. In Homephonechoices.co.uk's first annual customer satisfaction awards,TalkTalk won seven out of 10 categories, including best overall provider. Sky came out on top for customer service but it was smaller provider Primus Saver that was voted best value for money.

How you pay also makes a difference as some companies charge a premium for non-direct debit payments. Virgin Media levies a £5 charge so the extra fees can quickly add up. You should also be able to make savings by opting for online billing instead of having paper bills posted to you.

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