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Ringing some changes on phone numbers

Swimming In The iPool

The UK’s broadcast and communications regulator Ofcom is in the final stretch of a wide-ranging consultation over phone number pricing.

This is highly relevant to radio for two reasons. Firstly, the amount of phone traffic our stations drive to ourselves and our advertisers and, second, because it affects the ease at which we can promote phone numbers on air.

After all…

“Calls from a BT landline cost 38 pence per minute off peak, 45 pence per minute at all other times. Prices from other networks may vary and calls from mobiles may cost considerably more”

…does not great radio make.

Here’s what you need to know about the proposals:

Free calls will be free

Up to now they’ve only been free from landlines, not most mobiles (although Orange had honoured them). Ofcom proposes that all 0800, 0808 and 116 numbers will be free from any phone.

The BBC’s radio “helplines” sit behind 0800 numbers and services like these are likely to cost more to run once the mobile termination costs are passed to the service provider, not the caller.

They will be easier to promote on air though and will be a better way to build trust with audiences once they’re genuinely free to everybody and can be described as such.

‘Normal’ priced numbers will be easier to spot

The proposal is that only calls to 03 numbers will, in future, be charged on the same tariff as geographic calls to numbers starting 01 and 02 (the ones we use to pretend we’re local underpin our presence in local communities). Calls to 03 numbers are included in mobile and landline free minutes for subscribers who opt for such packages.

All this ought to raise awareness and trust in 03 as a ‘normal phone call’ and benefit organisations like the BBC who committed early-on to the 03 range with its 03700 numbers for national radio stations.

Service charge + access charge = cost of call

Service charge plus Access charge

For all calls that cost more than ‘normal’, Ofcom proposes splitting out the elements that comprise the total cost. In future there will be a maximum call cost per minute which is determined by the operator of the phone service and a separate ‘access charge’ which is agreed by the consumer with their phone network when they sign a contract.

That access charge can vary between networks but is not associated with the cost of the service provided by the radio station or advertiser. This change makes promotion easier as we’ll see later.

0845 and 0870 numbers will be better for radio

The 0845 and 0870 numbers used to be known as ‘local rate’ and ‘national rate’ respectively but quietly slipped their moorings to drift into more commercial waters in recent years. 0845 and 0870 numbers generally pay for themselves but don’t generate significant incomes. Other 087 numbers can be more lucrative.

In future, all 084 numbers will cost no more than 7p per minute plus the phone company’s standard access charge and the 087 numbers will be no more than 13p per minute plus access charge.

They’ll work much better on radio because no longer will their service charges vary by network or be considerably and scarily more from a mobile.

So will 09 numbers

These are premium rate numbers regulated by the ridiculously-named PhonePayPlus and which can provide an additional revenue stream for radio stations. They’re great for competitions run on automated IVR infrastructure and pre-recorded listener contributions. In future, they too will be priced according to the “service charge” plus “access charge” model and will additionally have price caps applied to help boost consumer confidence and reduce what Ofcom calls “consumer bill shock”.

They’ll still be the most expensive type of call but, again, service charge pricing will be consistent no matter what kind of phone a consumer is calling from.

Radio-friendly caveats

In what may be a welcome hint of coordinated thinking inside Riverside House, Ofcom has proposed a simpler way to describe call costs that works in print and, crucially for us, on the radio.

The service charge element of the call cost won’t vary by network so the on-air caveat can be greatly simplified. Ofcom suggests a radio-friendly line of copy in its consultation:

“This call will cost you x pence per minute plus your phone company’s access charge.”

That’s better.

An Ofcom infographic

The consultation is still open although Ofcom is pretty clear about its intentions and has stated it is “minded to” implement them within the next 18 months. They’re so committed they’ve even made an infographic of sorts.

Ofcom guide to call costs


This is all generally good news for radio because it makes promotion of our telephony services more simple and it has the potential to improve trust in differently-priced number ranges which are currently misunderstood by consumers. That in turn can help us find new revenue streams and improve engagement with listeners.

Oh! 500

Meanwhile, friends at BBC Radio Scotland take note; remember that brilliant 0500 92 95 00 free phone-in number I organised for you back in the nineties? Ofcom has announced that its days are, er, numbered. The 0500 number range will close and all free calls will then sit behind numbers starting 080 or 116 which they say have become more famously free. I’m not so sure about 116 numbers – have you ever seen one?

Anyway, it’s due to happen in two years time (unless you have your own Scottish regulator by then).

Picture credit: Swimming In The iPool by JD Hancock.



  1. Good article.

    The proposed changes to call charges for 08 and 09 numbers will take place, pretty much as you describe them, on 1 July 2015. This is now detailed on Ofcom’s website at

    There will also be an update to the Broadcast Code, the PhonepayPlus Code and CAP/ASA rules on the same date.

    Calls to 0500 numbers are not part of these changes. Instead, users can move to the matching 0808 5 number, gaining an extra digit in the process. This move must be completed by 3 June 2017.

    One minor correction.

    The current system sees the service charge element vary with the number called and the access charge element vary both with the landline or mobile provider used and with the number called. Mobile operators massively inflate the access charge element (not the service charge). The caller’s provider only ever presents the combined cost. Under the new system the service charge will continue to vary according to the number called, but the service provider will have to declare it. The access charge will vary according to the provider used, but will not be allowed to vary according to the number called. Landline and mobile phone providers will be responsible for setting a single access charge per tariff covering all 084, 087 and 09 numbers.

    The new system should reign in the excessive access charges currently levied by some mobile operators. A number of users of 084 and 087 numbers currently deny that the service charge element exists. The new system will force them to declare that it does and how much it is. Those who do not wish to do so can migrate to the matching 034 or 037 number where no such additional charge is levied.

  2. 116 numbers (116 plus another three digits) are allocated throughout Europe for Helplines of Social Importance.

    In the UK, three of the five agreed numbers are already in use. These are the helplines for Missing People, Childline and Samaritans. They first came into use in 2009 and calls are free from landlines and from mobiles.

    Childline also has the freephone 0800 1111 number which has been in use for more than thirty years.

    Samaritans does not promote the 116 number in the UK, instead directing people to call their 0845 number. From 1 July 2015 they will have to declare that calls to the 0845 number incur an additional 5p per minute Service Charge on top of the caller’s phone provider’s Access Charge.

    118 numbers (118 plus another three digits) are used by Directory Enquiries services.