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Landlines: The tech that just won't die

Do we have any choice about paying for home phone numbers?

Feature For a huge number of Brits, mobiles have become our primary way of communicating, even when we're at home. When a call comes in, we know it's ours. We can reply with a text, or use apps like WhatsApp to communicate with friends abroad. Increasingly, we don't rely on our landline phones and, thanks to lax policing of the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), for many of us, about the only thing they're used for is receiving unsolicited junk calls, or as a safety net so we can call 999 in an emergency.

And yet, a landline is largely impossible to avoid. Even if you have Virgin's cable broadband service, many of the bundle offers are only available if you take its phone line too, at a fairly pricey £16.99 per month. DSL customers don't have any choice at all, of course. Whether you use it or not, you'll have to pay for a package that includes a working line with dialtone.

Paying through the nose

How much you're paying for that facility is a bit of a sore point. While the wholesale line rental charged by BT's OpenReach division is actually falling at the moment, the charges that BT Retail levies have been creeping ever upwards.

Falling? Yes: until July last year, wholesale rental for a BT landline was £96.17 per year, plus VAT, then it fell to £91.05, and from 1st April this year it drops to £89.50. That makes the current cost per month £9.10 including VAT, and it will soon be £8.95. So how come millions of us end up paying almost £20 a month to BT?

One of the big reasons is the "weekend calls" deal that's now included with all BT packages, like it or not. If, like me, you don't make any qualifying calls, that's pretty annoying. The only thing plugged into my phone line is a burglar alarm, and I'd be happy to replace that with one that uses a SIM or broadband.

Youtube Video

Bob Hoskins guilt-trips the nation into making weekend calls on BT landlines in the 1990s

You also have to watch out for BT's underhand tricks. For example, the "BT Privacy" option that registered you on the TPS and gave free caller ID was discontinued on my line last year. I never received a notification that this was happening, and only found out by viewing the online bill which had an extra charge for caller ID slipped in at £1.75 per month. Add the ridiculous surcharge of £4 for not paying by direct debit – when a BACS payment costs BT nothing to receive – and the total per quarter is £60.22.

Even if you take out the charge for caller ID, but still refuse to allow BT to raid your bank account, the cost of a BT line to carry your broadband is £18.32 per month. Or put another way, a markup of 101 per cent over the wholesale price. Even if you're foolish enough to allow a direct debit, it's still an 86 per cent markup.

Charging backwards

Charges for services like caller ID are particularly galling. This is is a built-in feature of a modern line card in the exchange, and costs nothing extra to provide. Having to pay for it is a little like a garage selling you a Ferrari, and then charging you extra to be able to drive it at more than 50 miles an hour.

BT has form for this sort of trick, though, to be fair, most telcos play similar games of "gouge the punter." On my old ISDN line, caller ID also used to include COLP (Connected Line Identification Presentation), a service that displayed the identity of the caller number – both are part of the signalling system of ISDN. So, for example dialling an 0845 number would reveal the actual number it routed to.

Not content with merely overpricing ISDN almost to the point of extinction, BT eventually separated COLP and charged extra for it. It's not, incidentally, just services built into the network such as call diversion that BT turns off and ransoms back to you.

The same, according to some ISPs I've spoken with, holds true for DSL services. It would likely be easier, they think, to issue a fixed IP address by default than to set up an infrastructure of DHCP servers, and then charge a monthly fee not to use them.

Youtube Video

Lily Tomlin could well have been speaking about BT when she said "We don't care. We don’t have to. We're the phone company.”

Next page: So, what can we do?

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