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Last Updated: Friday, 28 October 2005, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
Telecoms question time
Paddy, Adam, Eddie and Bryan
Right. Who wants this one?
All your questions, answered by Bryan Glick, Managing Editor of Computing and Eddie Murphy, Manager of Communication Research Network - part of a joint venture between Cambridge University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Frederick in London: The programme has highlighted 0870 phone numbers recently, but what about 07000 numbers? I live in a block of flats and our managing agent has said this is a free number for residents to contact them. On checking with BT however, I discovered the charge is 16.5p per minute at peak times and 10p off peak. It is also used in hospitals for patients. Who is gaining out of this rip-off?

Personal numbering is a service which allocates the customer a number which that customer is then free to redirect in a dynamic way to mobile home office etc. The service provider makes money from the fees paid by callers to the number. This makes the rates higher than for calls to standard numbers and far away indeed from free.

Hospital numbers are very expensive to call as there is a service provider offering the service who can charge high rates. This monopoly is strengthened by the fact that there is an arcane ban on the use of mobile telephones in hospitals. This means that the service provider can get away with high rates as there is no alternative.

Peter Phelps emailed: How can it be called competition when other licensed telephone operators can put their equipment in BT Telephone Exchanges? I don't see Sainsbury's food in Tesco. What happens if a customer switches his line rental and call charges to another company, thereby paying BT nothing. I suppose BT still has to respond to any faults for him or her. Does BT get any money from the other operator for that customer?

But you do see Heinz baked beans in both Tesco and Sainsbury's! BT has an effective monopoly on the conventional telephone lines that connect to people's homes - the only exceptions that do not use BT at all are the cable TV companies NTL and Telewest, or Kingston Communications in Hull. A licensed phone company that provides telephone calls to households has no choice but to use BT's network in some way - either by installing its own equipment in the local telephone exchange or by reselling BT's own wholesale service. It is up to that company how much they charge for calls and line rental - but they are all paying BT for using its network. If you have a fault, the company you are buying phone calls from will ultimately be responsible for solving them, but it may actually be BT engineers that do the work.

Paul from Bedfordshire wants to know when it will be possible to make internet phone calls on a mobile phone?

A conventional mobile phone is unlikely to ever be able to make internet phone calls - the technology is very different, and mobile phone networks do not use the internet for making calls. However, it is possible to combine portable devices such as PDAs (for example, Palm Pilots) using voice over internet software with wireless connections, so you can make an internet phone call using a handheld computer with suitable software over a wireless network such as a WiFi hotspot.

Phil in Cheshire says he recently used his mobile phone in Jersey to both sent and receive calls whilst on holiday. The monthly bill showed, to his surprise that charges had been made for calls received as well as made. Why is this?

This is normal when a mobile phone is used out of country (and Jersey is outside the UK). Calls you make are charged at international roaming rates and these tend to be very high. Calls you receive cannot be charged to the caller in the normal way as they do not know that they are making an international call. The caller is charged at the standard UK call rate and then you are billed for the international leg of the call. That's the way it works.

Ean Bruce says whilst searching on the internet looking for free broadband, he came across a service that's totally free but is the old adage 'you don't get nothing for nothing' true in this case?

If something looks too good to be true then there may be disappointment in store. There is nothing on the website about how this works. As a business model, offering broadband for free when it costs money to provide it is more than likely to be an unsustainable proposition. The registration page didn't work when I tried it so maybe the wheels have come off already.

Phil Robinson says he would like to bring to our attention the practice that some broadband providers are adopting. If a customer, after the term of their contract, wants to change providers most companies issue them with a 'MAC key' which allows them to switch without cost and usually this causes only a couple of hours disruption. There are some companies who will accept this key but will not provide one for the customer to switch from their service. By not having this, it can mean up to a month downtime and an additional cost. Surely this should now be mandatory or OFCOM should publish a full list of ISPs who actually provide this service so that consumers know that they can switch easily in the future if required?

The best advice is too late for you I'm afraid. Before joining an ISP check if they are willing to provide MAC Keys. If the answer is no then go elsewhere. Any good company should be confident of its ability to retain customers without locking them in.

Donavan wrote to us: My wife recently called a premium phone line for a quiz programme and when the bill came in it said we had made a total of 40 calls. When I called my provider they said that even though my wife did not get through to register her answer she was charged 91p just for dialling the number and so in one minute, five calls had been registered. I seem to be unable to get a satisfactory answer even after a complaint to the regulator who said this was a perfectly legal practice. Is that right?

Yes it is legal. You need to read the small print on the screen when responding to such TV programmes. Remember the programmes are funded through the premium rate lines so the charges will be high.

Brian O'Kane asks: I was reading your article on using the internet for telephone calls and I would be very interested in trying to implement this in my business. I hoped that you might be able to point me in the direction of trustworthy reference material so that I can research the best method to see if this would be viable option.

My publication, Computing, has written a lot about companies using internet telephony - it is becoming increasingly popular and is very much one of the big growth areas for IT companies at the moment. Try searching on on our website for 'VOIP' and see what comes up.

You can get a Skype account by visiting the Skype website; or there are a number of other companies offering similar services, such as Sipgate, BT Broadband Voice and Gossiptel.

Claire Parker works work from home and needs broadband and until not so long ago, used TalkTalk. Recently she moved and have been without broadband for six weeks. Claire sent us in a whole list of dates with calls made and was even told it'd be quicker just to set up a new account - but she couldn't do that as she had a 12 month contract. She asks: Are we the only people to suffer this or is this common - and why does it take so long anyway?

Unfortunately, this is a common problem. Most broadband providers - those that specify you need a BT telephone line - are dependent on the BT network for their service. Only the cable TV companies NTL and Telewest are not. It varies how this works - some firms simply sell BT's own broadband product under a different name, others install their own equipment in BT's local telephone exchange, a process known as 'local loop unbundling'. If you move home, this typically means moving to a house that is connected to a different telephone exchange. If your broadband provider does not have equipment installed in that exchange, or does not have sufficient capacity, there may be a delay in transferring. There may also be paperwork behind the scenes between your supplier and BT.

The broadband providers are perfectly within their rights to mandate a 12 month minimum term contract - this is often the only way they can offer such good deals because it can take several months before they actually make any money from a new customer.

This situation is likely to get better though. BT has recently made a deal with the telecoms watchdog, Ofcom, that will see BT set up a new subsidiary company called Openreach that will act as an independent supplier of broadband services to both BT and its rivals. This should eventually help those rivals to get much better services and to therefore provide a better service to customers.

Clyde Garrett is also frustrated about how difficult broadband providers make it to change suppliers. He says: I had a letter from my provider to say no action would be taken until one month after I had cancelled, then there would be a further 15 days at least for BT to complete this. Then another approx 10 days for the new provider to set up the operation, meaning I will be without broadband for nearly a month if I proceed. Is there any way around this?

This is a common problem - when you move, the broadband connection needs to be set up again and there is a set procedure for doing this. This takes time so it is best to give as much notice as possible. Where you are trying to get two organisations to cooperate you have the additional problem that if something goes wrong they blame each other and you have no choice but to re-initiate the process. You have my sympathy as I am having similar infuriating problems trying to get gas connected to my new house.

Mannie in London wants to know about the security of wireless connections.

When you buy a computer that has a wireless capability, it is generally by default set to the minimum levels of security. Similarly, anybody setting up their own wireless network at home or in a business will buy equipment that generally is set with security defaulted to the lowest levels. It is a big worry that many home users do not realise that their wireless network is completely open for others to use. I could theoretically use a neighbour's wireless network and their broadband connection without paying a penny or them ever knowing.

If you are using a public wireless connection, such as a WiFi hotspot or a wireless broadband network, you should not assume that it is secure - many are not. There are plenty of examples of people going into a coffee shop and being able to look at everything other customers are doing with their laptop PC over the shop's wireless network. Many big companies are no better - computer security experts have done research in the City of London that shows that many firms have unsecured wireless networks that anybody can connect into.

There is a common wireless networking security protocol called WEP, and you should make sure this function is switched on for your PC or wireless network, and if you are worried about connecting to a public wireless service, make sure you connect using the WEP protocol.

Scott Allison has a company in Glasgow and is keen to point out that the high cost of using your mobile phone abroad can be eased by small companies like his. He says a special pay as you go SIM card gives incoming roaming calls free of charge in over 60 countries world-wide. Outgoing calls are not free, but are up to 75% cheaper than UK providers. Do you agree that this is the way forward when using your mobile abroad?

Roaming charges are a bugbear with many mobile customers. There is little incentive for mobile companies to lower their roaming charges. Businesses like these will help to put the squeeze on roaming charges. I know that Ofcom are looking into the matter but concerted action is needed by many mobile regulators because the first one to move will be accused of putting its mobile sector at a competitive disadvantage.

As far as the particulars of the service itself are concerned I don't have enough information about how it works in terms of incoming calls. Does the caller have to call a different number for each country that the phone is used in to reach the phone? I suspect that that might be necessary. This will make the service a bit unwieldy for people to call and may mean that we are not there yet in terms of tackling high roaming charges. But there may be something I don't know.

Mike in East Yorkshire wants to know how does Kingston Communications continues to have a monopoly on providing Hull and surrounding areas with their telecom needs?

Kingston does not have a monopoly in Hull. Any telecoms provider is free to enter the Hull market. BT seems to choose not to do so for domestic customers but certainly has business customers in the region.

The opinions expressed are Bryan and Eddie's, and not the programme's. The answers are not intended to be definitive and should be used for guidance only. Always seek professional advice for your own particular situation.

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