David Hickson's Media Releases

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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Ofcom writes to Silent Callers to tell them "Merry Christmas - it's OK - and a Happy New Year of Silent Calling"

Ofcom yesterday issued a circular letter to those it knows to be making Silent Calls - "Tackling ... Silent Calls".

This is intended to draw the attention of those who make Silent Calls to Ofcom's policy of qualified approval of the practice. It follows a consultation, to which I responded.

Most of us believe that habitually hanging up in Silence when a telephone call is answered must invariably be regarded as "Persistent Misuse of a Communications Network or Service". This is NOT the policy being followed by Ofcom. By this letter, that fact is made very clear to Silent Callers.

In 2006, Ofcom was informed of the expectation of parliament -
"we expect you to use your powers to eradicate the nuisance of Silent Calls"

In its letter, Ofcom tells Silent Callers of the steps it expects them to take
"where such calls are made, ways to LIMIT consumer harm"

Ofcom tolerates what it chooses to call “consumer harm”.

Silent Calls may readily be avoided in two ways:

Always using an Informative Message, played live when the call is answered, to apologise and inform the person called of the true identity of the caller whenever no agent is available to handle an answered call that was dialled automatically.
Ceasing use of unreliable Answering Machine Detection technology, designed to hear the clicks and whirrs of a mechanical answering machine, in favour of Answering Service Detection, where the use of any answering service is detected reliably from a signal issued by the service.

Confirmation of Ofcom's approval of the practice of making Silent Calls and its absurd suggestions of how consumer harm may be "LIMITED" may be seen in the following further quotations from the letter:

"... an abandoned call rate ... of no more than 3% ..." - 1 in every 33 calls may result in silence.
"not contacting consumers within 72 hours of their receiving an abandoned call" - leave people waiting for 3 days before the next Silent Call, or perhaps the chance for a caller to acknowledge their previous error and apologise.
"... they can trace who rang them by dialling 1471 in the event of a silent call" - the chances of being able to recognise the identity of a caller from the number given as CLI are remote. Using the callback feature of 1471 is generally expensive and unlikely to reveal the full identity of the caller. I would personally never advise anyone to call back to someone who has just made a Silent nuisance call to them; if the unknown purpose of call was perhaps malicious, this is the very last thing that one should do. The suggestion that it could be acceptable to leave a “trace” of who one is, rather than clearly stating one’s name when a call is answered, is quite ridiculous.
"... where a call has been identified by AMD technology as being picked up by an answer machine any repeat calls to that specific number within the same 24 hour period may only be made with the guaranteed presence of a live operator". This suggestion acknowledges that AMD technology is unreliable and a common cause of Silent Calls. The foolish feature of the suggestion to wait 24 hours before trying again ignores the fact that if a false detection has occurred once it is highly likely to occur again. Ofcom is actually encouraging a pattern of one Silent Call per day from a Silent Caller.

Seven years after I succeeded in getting Ofcom to launch its first investigation into a Silent Caller who had been calling me (which led only to approval of a limited number of Silent Calls being made - 10,000 per day in the case in question) I am somewhat dismayed to find that Ofcom is still approving the practice of making Silent Calls.

I accept that Ofcom does not have the resources to identify and penalise every Silent Caller. Writing to them to tell them that it is OK to make Silent Calls is a quite different matter.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Public service providers must immediately cease using "BUSINESS RATE" telephone numbers

Ofcom announcement

Ofcom has published a consultation on proposals for the future regulation of non-geographic telephone numbers - Simplifying Non-Geographic Numbers.

The published information includes a comprehensive analysis of the current costs of calling 0845 and 0844 numbers. 1 This clearly demonstrates that the cost of calling these numbers (now designated "Business Rate") is greater than that of calling "Geographic Rate" numbers for most callers.

Legacy regulation has caused BT landline customers to benefit from a discount when calling these numbers. Ofcom proposes that this special treatment, which does not apply to users of other landlines, mobiles or payphones, be ended.

NHS Regulations

Any NHS body or GP seeking to pretend that their 0844 or 0845 number is not more expensive to call is now seen to be engaged in a deliberate or misguided deceit. Because the NHS is a universal service, such determinations cannot be made using the limited assumption that all patients are BT customers who do not have a call plan in place when calling.

Directions to NHS bodies give them until Tuesday 21 December 2010 to review this matter and make alternative arrangements. In some cases, it may be too late to do the latter, but there can be no excuse for not now declaring an intention to remedy the situation as soon as possible.

Revisions to their NHS contract give GPs until 31 March 2011 to do the same. It must be noted that telephone service providers allow the option to migrate to 03 ("Geographic rate") numbers within the term of their contracts. Associated telephone systems are supported equally by 03 and 084 numbers, so there is no requirement to consider use of a particular system when selecting the type of telephone number, 03 ("Geographic rate") or 084 ("Business rate"), to use.

Bundled tariff

The Ofcom document explains that the present cost of calling 0845 and 0844 numbers (along with many others) includes two "bundled" elements:

1.The "service charge" - to the benefit of the Service Provider (the user of the number).
2.The "access charge" - retained by the telephone company originating the call.

Ofcom proposes that these costs be unbundled

Under Ofcom's proposals, NHS Direct, HMRC and DWP agencies would be required to present the cost of calling their 0845 numbers as follows:

"Calls to (0845 4647 / 0845 3000 627 / 0845 604 3719) 2 cost 2p per minute plus your phone company’s access charge".

For 0844 numbers, as used by many GPs, the presentation would be:

"Calls to the surgery on 0844 4771799 3 cost 5p per minute plus your phone company's access charge."

These statements would simply represent the truth as it exists today, notwithstanding the fact that the phone company access charge element is currently totally opaque, highly variable and unrelated to the cost of calling an ordinary (geographic rate) number. The "service charge" element exists today - the Ofcom proposals are simply for it to be made transparent, by regulation.

NHS and other public service providers that may not levy a "service charge" for telephone contact must immediately desist from use of what are now designated as "Business Rate" numbers. Citizens do not engage with NHS providers, HMRC or the DWP agencies on commercial terms.

It is for businesses to determine whether or not they are content for it to be seen that they are levying a charge for access to certain services provided by telephone. Taxpayer-funded service providers cannot be seen to be levying a second charge, on service users.

Geographic rate numbers

Ofcom confirms that only 01, 02 and 03 numbers may be considered to be charged at "Geographic rate". The historic link which once applied to 0845 numbers, BUT ONLY EVER FOR BT LANDLINE CUSTOMERS, will be finally broken.

Only those Service Providers who serve only BT landline customers can claim a link between 0845 calls and geographic rates, until such time as the changes proposed by Ofcom are implemented.

Those who require non-geographic numbers, but cannot present them as being proper to be charged at "Business Rate" or "Premium Rate", must adopt "Geographic rate" 03 numbers.

For ease of migration, the 0344 and 0345 equivalent number for each 0844 and 0845 numbers is reserved. Such migration is permitted by telephone companies within the term of an existing contract for telephone service.

Where considerable cost may be involved in fully changing a number, a sensible pragmatic approach is to offer 0344 or 0345 alternatives as a standard, possibly covering many numbers, operating in parallel with the 0844 or 0845 equivalents and advised as such, as a general principle.

I see the option of parallel operation (0845 / 0345) as particularly suitable for NHS Direct, where the cost of a complete number change would be highly inappropriate as 0845 4647/0345 4647 has only a limited remaining life.

Parallel operation would also be most appropriate for the many 0845 numbers used by HMRC and all DWP agencies. Major number changes are planned for the future and tight budgets make it most suitable to simply issue a general advice that any 0845 number may be replaced with the 0345 equivalent.

To provide full information, HMRC and DWP could make the following statement at present:

"All 'Business rate' 0845 numbers are subject to a service charge of 2p per minute. This is in addition to the access charge levied by your telephone company, which may also include a call connection fee. Current access charges are known to vary from -2p per minute to +38p per minute." 4

If adopting my recommended approach, the following could be added:

"To contact us at 'Geographic rate', call our 0345 alternative numbers. Simply replace the 0845 with 0345 and dial the remainder of the number as quoted."

Circulation of these comments

These comments are published in my blogs 5, and as a general media release. They are circulated to relevant personnel in the NHS 6, HMRC and DWP, to MPs and to others concerned with the issues of fairness and propriety that are brought most clearly into focus by the Ofcom announcements.

I also include members of the "Non-Geographic Numbers Review Team" at Ofcom (NGCSReview@ofcom.org.uk) who will, I am sure, be happy to confirm the points I make here.

I will be pleased to assist with any further information and comment.

David Hickson


1.See http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/consultations/nongeo/summary/non-geo.pdf  - Tables A2.4 & A2.5 (p140) vs. A2.7 & A2.8 (p147).
2.The numbers quoted are as follows:
0845 4647 - NHS Direct - telephone health advice and information service
0845 3000 627 - HM Revenue and Customs - for enquiries about tax over/under -payments
0845 604 3719 - JobCentre Plus - to contact any Jobcentre
3.The number quoted is that used make an appointment with NHS practising GP - Dr Richard Vautrey - Deputy Chairman of the BMA General Practitioners Committee.
Dr Vautrey is a strong public advocate of the use of "Business Rate" numbers for provision of NHS services. We exchanged views on this issue on the Radio 4 Today programme 2 years ago.
The BMA GPC also advocates a service charge for telephone calls to some NHS providers and encourages exploitation of the "Confusion about the price" which the Ofcom proposals seek to address (see GPC GUIDANCE: USE OF 084 NUMBERS IN THE NHS).
4.The maximum charge for calling a 0845 number is given by Ofcom as 40p per minute, as at August 2010. Prices will be reviewed to reflect the increase in VAT to apply from 5 January 2011.
5.NHS.Patient blog, Public Services Campaigner blog, Media Releases blog.
6.My NHS.Patient website includes lists of NHS service providers using Business Rate numbers - NHS Bodies and GPs.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Government and the NHS must stop using "Business Rate" telephone numbers, where the call charge includes a "service charge"

Ofcom has today published extensive information about 0845 and 0844 telephone numbers - Simplifying Non-Geographic Numbers.

This includes proposals to rename these ranges as "business rate" and to require the call charges to be "unbundled", so that the "access charge" paid to the telephone service provider is separated from the "service charge" to the benefit of the user of the number.

This is a long overdue clarification and simplification of what is happening today. The proposed change is only in how the situation is presented.

Many NHS service providers, HMRC and DWP agencies use 0845 and 0844 "business rate" numbers. It is now clearly revealed that the charges for calling these numbers include a "service charge". Once this is declared separately, "unbundled", it will become quite clear that use of such numbers is quite improper, except where a service fee may fairly be levied for the call.

The 03 range will remain available for those who require "non-geographic" numbers that are charged at the standard "geographic" rate. All public bodies must recognise the need to move to 03 numbers immediately. The direct equivalent alternative 0345 and 0344 numbers are available and may be adopted at any time (within the term of an existing telephone service contract). Where appropriate these alternative numbers may be operated in parallel to save the expense of total number changes.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Ofcom continues to fail to address the problem of Silent Calls

From: David Hickson - Stop Silent Calls campaigner

In its summary of its Consumer Experience Report 2010 (Telecoms complaints fall – but challenges remain) Ofcom reports that complaints about Silent Calls are running at record levels. It has however failed to use the statutory powers that it holds to simply notify the offender of what it calls "a breach of the rules" since October 2008.

This can only mean that every one of the 6,600 complaints received in 2009 and the 8,600 in 2010 to date was about a company making Silent Calls within the generous allowance that Ofcom's policy permits. Ofcom says that it will "continue with our policy of enforcement", however there is only one company which Ofcom has made subject to use of its statutory powers of enforcement.

BBC Watchdog recently highlighted BT and British Gas as being amongst the companies making Silent Calls. They both claim to be doing so within the terms of what BT calls "the Ofcom Persistent Misuse Policy". Ofcom clearly agrees, as neither has been notified of a breach; I therefore agree with BT's choice of terminology to describe the Policy.

Ofcom refers to a change of policy that will be implemented on 1 February 2011. This policy suggests that those who make a Silent Call (when caused by use of obsolete and ineffective Answering Machine Detection technology) should repeat the call on successive days. Ofcom's suggestion that "companies will no longer be able to call consumers without the guaranteed presence of a live operator more than once a day" is complete nonsense.

Ofcom does not have the authority to impose such a rule as a general requirement - it can only do so in specific cases, following a Notification of Persistent Misuse. As stated above, Ofcom has only ever used this power once in relation to Silent Calls. Furthermore, Ofcom has no way of monitoring or enforcing such a requirement.

It may be that some companies will follow this policy. The cases reported by Watchdog indicate that the problem with repetition is having every day predictably blighted with suspicion every time the phone rings. The fundamental problem with an intended limitation on repetition is that it confirms tolerance of every initial instance. Ofcom's actual policy, if applied, will simply ensure that more people get a single Silent Call on any particular day.

The fundamental point that Ofcom has always failed to grasp is that NO CALL SHOULD RESULT IN SILENCE from the caller. A tolerance limit of 3% and of only one per person per day is simply an unacceptable tolerance of Silent Calls. Under Ofcom's policy, this is what has to be exceeded for even the first stage of its statutory powers to be used. The potential for a severe fine, which is available at the third stage of use of the powers, may sound impressive. If however companies such as BT and British Gas admitting to making Silent Calls and over 15,000 complaints can fail to cause even the first stage to be used, then Ofcom cannot claim to be addressing the problem effectively.

There will always be cowboys and offshore operators that Ofcom will have difficulty in detecting and acting against. It cannot be seen to be fulfilling its duty when it permits and even encourages large responsible UK companies to make Silent Calls.

No Silent Call is necessary.

Those who use predictive diallers can use an "Informative Message" when a system failure exceptionally leads to there being no agent available to handle an answered call. This is referred to, but poorly specified and not mandated, by Ofcom.

Answering Machine Detection has failed to be effective since general use of tape recorders was replaced by use of network based answering services. Ofcom is wrong to oppose the potential introduction of Answering Service Detection as an effective means of ensuring that calls have been answered by a person. Ofcom is yet more wrong to encourage the use of the obsolete Answering Machine Detection technology, on the spurious and irrelevant grounds that the money saved as a result of inevitably making Silent Calls leads to reduced prices for consumers in the markets for energy and other products and services.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Homeserve investigates improper telephone marketing - Ofcom and the Information Commissioner are seen to have lost the plot

According to an article published by FT.com - "Homeserve to probe phone campaign", Homeserve is to conduct an internal investigation into the activities of one of its marketing agencies, which leaves repeated marketing messages on the telephone answering services used by prospective customers. (See my clipped summary.)

It seems that these messages are abusing a technique, which I successfully promoted back in 2005, designed to prevent Silent Calls without prohibiting the use of automated dialling equipment. This "Informative Message" technique has already been abused by Ofcom, which uses it as the basis for permitting 3% of calls to result in Silence.

Consent to use of the "Informative Message" was negotiated between Ofcom and the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO), both of which are quoted in the FT article. If the quotes are genuine and complete, then both bodies have missed the point.

Ofcom suggests that automated callers are able to distinguish between calls that are answered in person and those directed to answering services, as it claims that its policy is based on such an assumption. This is nonsense, there is no reliable means of doing so in use.

Ofcom actively opposes the introduction of a technique ("Answering Service Detection") that could address this. Furthermore, Ofcom approves and promotes the use of an obsolete, unreliable method of detecting mechanical answering machines ("Answering Machine Detection"). Ofcom has even had to add a proviso that the inevitable Silent Calls are repeated on successive days, rather than all on one day - it seems that this is exactly what this caller has done.

The ICO refers to there being no requirement to deliver recorded marketing messages. It fails to mention that such messages are totally prohibited by the terms of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (regulation 19), which it enforces. This prohibition applies regardless of registration with the Telephone Preference Service!


Please contact me for further information and comment on this story and related issues. The issues are inevitably complex, so please bear with me as I seek to assist with attempts to untangle a web of regulatory provisions.

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