|Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications|
When CUT started in the first half of 1998, we asked OFTEL their views on the feasibility of unmetered tariffs.
The rather flippant reply from Warwick Izzard explained that we shouldn't expect unmetered calls in this country on a wide scale any time soon because of 'different cultural and legal traditions'. If our culture could accept the Big Mac and fries, why should it be so difficult for us to accept unmetered local calls?
At that time, however, OFTEL dismissed us and our activities as those of naieve cranks. Reading between the lines, offering an unmetered tariff would be financially untenable and technically impossible.
At the time of its privatisation, British Telecom had the entire UK market for local and national calls - except for subscribers in Kingston Communications' service area - and the successive Director Generals of OFTEL have always seen their role to be one of ensuring a level playing field for all operators rather than fighting for the best deal for individual consumers; the focus has been on networks rather than services.
Our relationship with OFTEL has evolved since then, and we can best summarise their current policy to be
OFTEL cannot demand of any telecommunications operator to offer an unmetered tariff. The only operators on whose prices OFTEL has any influence are BT and Kingston Communications who are deemed to have "dominant market share" within the areas covered by their licence. Should BT wish to offer an unmetered tariff, they would have to present the details to OFTEL who would then determine whether it is anti-competitive.
OFTEL's structure includes a Consumer Panel formed of people who meet occasionally to make recommendations: the Director General may act on these but is not obliged to do so. The report of the 1997 Consumer Panel Meeting included the words:
Local Calls - A number of speakers referred to free local calls in overseas countries and wondered why they were not available here. Others observed that the costs of free local calls were always recovered elsewhere (in line rentals for example) and that, where local calls are free, customers always therefore ended up paying for local calls in other ways.
This implied recommendation of opening up the UK market to unmetered calls has remained without reply from the Director General at the time, Don Cruickshank, and has not been addressed by his successor, David Edmonds.
We find it strange that although Kingston Communications, who have a total monopoly of providing telephone services in Hull, have been able to provide an unmetered service to their customers throughout their history, and to the best of our knowledge, no regulatory approval was given (or even applied for).
it would therefore seem that as far as the 85% of UK telecommunications consumers whom they serve, the ball is squarely in BT's court...
We accept that a telecommunications company must derive its income from other sources, but as our selective research involving Cable and Wireless Communications customers has shown, those with unmetered local calls communicate more; the average spend for those customers is twice the CWC average.
OFTEL's remit of regulating BT prices ends in mid-2001. What BT choose to do after that date is their prerogative.
Text by Richard Sliwa
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