Oftel threatens action over telephone tariffs

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The Independent Online
THE NEW director-general of Oftel, the telecoms watchdog, is threatening to use his official powers if telecoms companies do not come up with a way of publishing their tariffs so they can be easily compared.

David Edmonds, who took over his post at the beginning of April, has written to the chief executives of all the major residential telecoms operators, threatening them with regulatory action if they do not release information on prices.

His move follows the failure of a working party of telecoms operators, set up with Oftel's encouragement, to come up with a template that would allow residential customers to compare their prices easily.

The committee had asked Analysys, the consultancy based in Cambridge, to come up with a format that would represent their prices properly. However, Analysys complained that it could not do the job because the telecoms operators would not give it sufficient information about tariff structures.

Mr Edmonds is especially concerned that the myriad of different rates and discounts on offer at the moment only confuse the consumer. He wants the industry to produce a chart that will allow customers to compare charges and decide which service suits them best.

However, prices are particularly difficult to compare. British Telecom's "Friends and Family" offer gives users extra discounts on numbers they call regularly. Meanwhile, Cable & Wireless Communications has set a maximum charge of 50p on weekend national calls. Other cable operators do not charge for calls between their own subscribers in the same area.

As a result, the telecoms operators complain that squeezing their prices into a fixed template would be misleading. But Mr Edmonds has demanded they come up with a comprehensive chart by the autumn or face the prospect of Oftel forcing them to adopt a fixed template.

Mr Edmonds' actions will delight consumer groups, who have long complained that telecoms prices only serve to confuse. But business users will be disappointed that his initiative does not stretch to business rates. Mr Edmonds argues that companies are more capable of working out for themselves which rates offer best value.