Dial C for confusion over the best phone deal

FROM next month telephone users will see further cuts in call charges, but a 40 per cent increase for using directory enquiries. The announcement by BT of a change in its price structure has led to other phone companies reducing call charges so that they broadly maintain their price advantage over BT.

As with most other privatised utilities, the telephone market is confusing for users trying to find the best deal. Steve Thorpe, membership services manager of the Telecom Users Association, says: "I am not sure the residential consumer is aware of the possible savings they can make. I am not even sure it is very easy to understand." There is also a threshold before they can make savings, he added. "Charges are so diverse that it can be difficult for someone who is still with BT, and has got Friends and Family and the Best Friend option, and other services, to compare with Cable & Wireless [owners of Mercury and several cable companies], Ionica or other companies to see if they can make savings."

In fact, says Mr Thorpe, it may not even be worth taking the time to compare the myriad phone offers to see which is marginally cheapest. "Just go for it," he suggests. "Start with a supplier you understand, and as time moves on see if there is something better. Businesses switch carriers all the time."

A significant barrier for consumers wishing to switch phone suppliers has been the inability to transfer their existing phone numbers. Ionica, a telephone company that uses radio technology, has always allowed consumers to keep their BT number: some of the cable companies have not. But industry regulator Oftel said last month that the number portability problem had been solved: consumers could now switch between companies and keep their numbers.

At the time Don Cruickshank, director of Oftel, said: "Now customers can move between any operator to ensure they are getting the best quality of service at the best price, without the inconvenience of having to change numbers." Unfortunately in practice in many parts of the country it is still not possible to carry an existing BT phone number to a cable supplier.

A spokesman for Oftel admitted that some of the "small" cable companies still did not have the software to enable number portability. A representative of the trade body, the Cable Communications Association, agreed: "Some cable companies have been faster in doing this than others." Diamond Cable, which operates across much of the East Midlands, is one of the companies that still does not offer number portability.

Another problem is that only BT, Ionica and the cable companies offer a fully integrated service: that is, to use other service providers it is necessary first to dial into their network, either by pressing a Mercury button or by dialling a prefix, such as 1602 for the Dial 1602 service. This can be inconvenient for high-volume customers. One solution for frequent users, such as home workers, is to obtain a control box, for installation between the phone and the junction box, which automatically directs long-distance calls to the cheaper operator. First Telecom provides these free to business customers.

The number of companies offering cheap phone services is still growing. Most only offer long-distance and international call savings, but ACC and Dial 1602 - run by Broadsystems, part of News International - both now compete against BT on local calls. ACC claims to be 5 per cent cheaper than BT on local calls, 15 per cent cheaper on national calls and 20 per cent cheaper on international calls. There is no registration fee, the account is billed in the same way as with BT and customers continue to rent their line from BT.

Dial 1602 claims its local calls are 5 per cent below BT prices, with long-distance and international calls 30 per cent cheaper. Local call charges are also likely to be cut substantially soon. All customers must agree to pay by direct debit and there is a quarterly fee of pounds 2.50. Consumers continue to rent their phone line from BT. Customers of Sky TV can use the Dial 1602 service without being charged the quarterly fee, but call savings are slightly lower at 20 per cent.

Other companies offering major savings on long-distance and international calls over BT include Swiftcall, Oystel and First Telecom. Each operates a tariff structure almost as complex as BT's, making comparisons difficult. Some focus on specific market sectors - Oystel specialises in ethnic minorities and groups with families and friends in Africa, India and Pakistan. Pre- payment is necessary with Swiftcall, First Telecom and Oystel.

For some people the savings from using an alternative phone company - for all calls, or just long distance or international - will be marginal. People who stick with BT should ensure they use Friends & Family discounts, worth 10 per cent on 10 nominated numbers, and the Best Friend scheme, worth 20 per cent on one chosen number.

Internet telephony is likely to be the next factor in the drive to force down prices. Although it has been possible for a few years to use the Internet to make international calls for the price of a local connection, the quality has been poor. Companies such as Swiftcall are working on software improvements that could make a major reduction in costs on international calls. Swiftcall says it expects to announce its Internet-based telephony service in spring or summer this year.

Contacts: ACC, 0181-400 4400; Broadsystems/Call 1602, 0345 160200; Cable & Wireless/Mercury, 0171-528 2000; First Telecom, 0800 376 6666; Ionica, 08 456 456 456; Oystel, 01189 569 123; Swiftcall, 0800 769 0000.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss