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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March 2005, 16:52 GMT
Phones queries
Alan Stevens and Eddie Murphy

In Consuming Issues, Alan Stevens, a communications consultant and Eddie Murphy, a telecommunications consultant answered your questions on phones.

Are mobile phone companies obliged to provide their customers with information from the Company's records regarding phone usage? I have been wrongly accused by the Police of using my mobile phone whilst driving my car. My phone Billing Account shows I did not make a call but Vodafone will not confirm I did not receive a call (i.e. my phone was not in use). I understand that the police can obtain this information from mobile phone companies but they have declined to do so in this instance. I therefore cannot prove my innocence in court and I am most likely to be found guilty as it is my word against a policeman's word.

Mobile phone companies do keep records about outgoing calls made by their customers - they need to do this in order to provide itemised billing. They do not keep detailed call by call records of incoming calls - they do not bill for these calls.

In order to test your claim that you were not making a call the police would have to check whether a call was coming to your phone from every telephone company in the UK (or in the world if you allow for the possibility that the call was from abroad). I'm not surprised they are unwilling to do this.

Furthermore, there is a bit of a grey area - some people take the view that you are not allowed to have a mobile phone in your hand while driving, even if it is not making a call. Therefore, even the failure to find a call record to your phone might not be considered sufficient defence.

Having lost my mobile phone, I can buy a new phone and a new sim card but is it possible to retain my old mobile phone number?

Yes - you can apply to your service provider to have your old number ported to the new SIM. You are likely to be charged for the service though.

My wife parents live in Thailand, and I am a very happy user of an override provider - whereby I receive much lower call charges - e.g. just 1p a minute for calls to Thailand. This is great - but my question is - how do they do it?!

For reliable telecommunications, there needs to be a lot of spare capacity in the network. Many operators operate with communications links only partially occupied. Some reseller companies, however operate on the basis that they fill communications links to maximum capacity in the way that charter airlines rarely fly with an empty seat on the plane.

This combined with innovative technologies such as Voice over IP allows very high densities of calls over a fixed cost link. This allows a low cost per call.

It's worth noting that just as we have seen low cost airlines move scheduled flight prices towards those of charter airlines, so we will see standard operator prices move towards those of the resellers too.

We are currently with BT Option 1. We do not make many calls but are still paying 34.50 per quarter for "service charges" - 29.36 + VAT. While we are able to afford this, I am aware that there may be many older people for whom this charge is prohibitive but who require a phone for essential contact with families, carers, the emergency services and to offset loneliness. Is there a less expensive service provider - or can BT be persuaded to discount charges for over 65's?

BT operates a Light User Scheme which discounts the line rental (or service charge) for customers who use the phone infrequently. If your quarterly telephone usage charges are lower than around 10 and you apply to be on the scheme then you will get a rebate on your service charge. The lower your usage the higher the rebate up to a maximum rebate of 19.36 per quarter.

I was told by BT because the internet is connected to my phone line I can't go on the low user tariff why?

The Light User Scheme is mainly intended to allow people to receive incoming calls from friends and family and to have a telephone available for emergencies. It is not intended for internet access.

A year or so back there was talk that BT and Vodafone were jointly bringing out a phone that could be used as a landline phone when used near its base station and a mobile when away. Is this still likely to come about?

My understanding is that the "Blue Phone" is still planned for some time in the second quarter of this year. This is combined DECT cordless and GSM mobile phone. The user can use the phone which will default to the fixed network when a call is made in range of the fixed network and will be a mobile call where it is out of range of the cordless base station.

For some time now it has been possible to continue paying BT for line rental but have your call charges from any of a number of different services. I believe the Post Office is now the first organisation to offer a complete alternative to BT i.e. line rental and call charges. However, from my point of view their price structure does not seem to be that competitive compared to BT's and I would like to know if there are any other companies offering line rental and call charge packages, and whether they are truly independent of BT's pricing structure or whether they have limited ability to be flexible because, as I suspect, ultimately they themselves are governed by what BT charge them?

All of the alternatives to BT use BT infrastructure which they lease from BT at a wholesale price. The wholesale price is a large part of the price paid by the end user and so there is not a lot of scope for other companies to vary either the size of their price or its structure from the underlying wholesale prices charged by BT.

How does Kingston Communications manage to keep their phone monopoly in the Hull & East Riding area?

They don't. Kingston used to have the same monopoly rights in Hull as BT had in the rest of the country. This is because when telephone systems were established first they were mainly established by private companies and local authorities. Gradually they were merged into the Post Office to form a single telecommunications provider nationally - except in Hull. The local authority there maintained independence and never joined the national operator.

The telephone liberalisation which happened in the 1980s and 1990s removed the monopoly rights enjoyed by Kingston Communications in the same way that they were removed from BT.

I don't know whether you've covered this issue already but its one I'm reading more and more about recently. That of reverse charged unsolicited text messages to your mobile. I was receiving these over December and January, not realising I was being charged for each the bill reached 65 before I was told how to stop them. I've been told that I have no choice but to pay for this service I supposedly received apparently originating from my acceptance of a free wallpaper download offer which also came direct to my phone. Is there anything I can do?

This is a difficult one. There are many legitimate service providers who offer services charged on a per message basis following acceptance of an authorisation text from the customer. For instance someone might authorise a service provider to send texts each time their favourite team scores a goal - something the frequency of which cannot be forecast in advance.

However, there are some shady service providers who trick customers into unwittingly agreeing to pay for unsolicited texts in the manner which you describe. It is very difficult to prevent their operation without making business impossible for the majority of ethical service providers.

The best advice I can give is never reply to unsolicited texts unless you are absolutely sure they are from a reputable organisation.

A few months ago my orange contract phone was stolen. As the phone was insured I rang Orange and ordered a new one. This replacement phone was faulty, as was the three phones that followed. Orange told me its their policy to provide customers with re conditioned handset only. I was disgusted with this as I'd paid my insurance for years thinking I would have a new for old replacement. I decided I would migrate to Vodafone only to read in their terms and conditions they also provide re-conditioned handsets in the event in a theft. Please, please can you tell me, do any of the networks offer a new for old service? And do the general public realise all their insurance buys them is a second hand replacement?

Not sure if any do. The message here is to read the small print when signing up for contracts. However, your operator should provide you with a functioning phone even if it is reconditioned.

I received a reverse charge phone call through Telewest, the call lasted 22 seconds and cost 3.19. I have been told by them that this is the standard charge although they do not inform you of the price when you are asked if you accept the call. Does this sound right - it's very expensive?

Reversed charge calls are pretty rare. Operators have to set up special facilities to handle these calls. The cost of setting up the arrangements is then shared over a relatively small number of calls. This does make them expensive. Always ask what the cost of a call will be before accepting the call. If the price is too high - decline to accept the call.

Many of us now receive scam phone calls, on the lines of: "Congratulations! You have just won a major prize...blah, blah, blah. Please press the nine key to hear further details." The speaker has a female North American accent, and the number is always withheld. Is it possible to incur premium rate charges by doing this? Colleagues I used to work with in a major telecoms company were adamant that Premium Rate charges could only be incurred if you dialled a Premium Rate number directly. Which is correct?

I would agree with your colleagues - it is not possible to incur premium rate charges by doing this. Asking the called party to press the nine key is probably a mechanism by which the systems generating the call distinguish between a call taken by a real person and a call taken by an answering machine.

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