Dirty surcharges now on more British Isles calls

Simon Woodhead

Simon Woodhead

18th October 2022

By Simon Woodhead

If you’ve followed our previous blogs on origin surcharges, what comes next will probably not surprise you. If this is the first you’ve heard, allow me to recap:

We know not what lobbying went on but in the 2021 Wholesale Voice Markets Review Ofcom had the whizzo idea that operators should be allowed to surcharge calls so they weren’t beholden to one-sided misbehaviour by overseas operators when we exited the EU. Let’s face it: probably the French! 

A few operators thought this was indeed a whizzo idea. We didn’t, and said so, because of the games it gave opportunity for and, as usual, the potential harm by unintended consequence.

Ofcom proceeded with the whizzo idea anyway and a few operators (BT, Vodafone, EE, Three and very quickly Gamma) implemented these surcharges in record time. Well, on the face of it they did – you should see the rate sheets, they are a catastrophe.

Our major issue with this was they didn’t charge based on where calls actually came from, e.g. calls over the specific interconnect with said foreign operator, but rather wholesale to everyone based on the CLI presented in the call with a super whizzo expensive rate for ‘invalid CLI’.

Our issue with this was two fold. 

  1. The potential for harm to domestic operators and consumers; when I had the opportunity to challenge an Ofcom Director on this his response was “if the CLI is invalid I don’t know where the call came from”. Facepalm one! 
  2. Invalid CLI is already prohibited by Ofcom General Conditions of Entitlement and has been for years. So no operator should be originating or terminating a call with invalid CLI. Ofcom were therefore sending a very clear message to the industry: ignore our rules and profit from it all you like boys. Facepalm two!

Seeing the whizzo profits available, other wholesale operators (all of them except Simwood as far as we can tell) decided to profit too by passing them on to their customers. Given the complexity of these things (34 sets of originating prefixes and rates at last count) it was easier for them to simply take the worst case scenario and mark it up, sharing in the whizzo spoils at the expense of their customers, and making additional margin on the blend.

Like a kleptomaniac in an unstaffed electrical store, having got away with it so far, Vodafone and BT decided they should then also apply these surcharges to non-geographic calls – 03 and 08 numbers.

So that’s the potted history but what next? 

Well, effective October 1st, any calls from mobile operators in the British Isles (Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man etc.), or rather any calls with their numbers presented in CLI, will be surcharged. Now considering how widely those numbers are used within the UK, not least because of Ofcom’s restrictive policy on Mobile Network Codes (MNC), this is going to affect a large number of innovative services. You may recall our own efforts to obtain an MNC where Ofcom were very clear that we had to demonstrate subservience to the oligopoly before they’d consider it. Building an independent mobile operator that could provide actual competition, roaming to cover not spots or for key worker protection was a no-go. Others have built such services using roaming SIMs from these providers. We can all sleep at night knowing that next time a community nurse is raped and calls for help, someone will make a nice profit, presuming the call connects at all. 

Our resident regulatory expert, Pete Farmer, has reviewed the relevant Ofcom rules and says the ability to surcharge accrues to foreign operators which terminate calls “made to numbers outside the UK”. While our friends on the Bailiwick of Jersey et al are, strictly speaking, self-governing, they do adopt numbers from the UK telephone numbering plan, therefore, there are questions to be answered – there is a strong case that the numbers they use are not numbers outside the UK. Not least that had Ofcom consulted upon the whizzo idea properly before capitulating to the presumed lobbying of certain operators, such ambiguities could have been addressed in advance. 

I’m a capitalist but this whole whizzo idea is truly disgusting and an international embarrassment.

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