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Consumer Affairs
Sunday, February 1, 2004
Telkom twister

If you were asked what a local call would cost in your area, would you assume it was the ‘local rate’? Most people would. We asked various business people, those in management, friends and even the man-in-the-street. And without exception that is what they all thought.

But they were all wrong. That’s because Telkom bases its charges only on distance these days, meaning some ‘local’calls are charged at long distance rates.
So dialing a local number (without the area code) does not necessarily mean you are paying a local rate. As to be expected there’s a huge difference: below 50km distance you currently pay 38cents a minute; above that you pay 99cents, both including VAT. After seven in the evening and at weekends you ‘enjoy’ the callmore rates at 15,2 cents and 49,5 cents a minute respectively. Note that, aside from this, all calls have a minimum charge of 56,3 cents (0-50km) and 99 cents (>50km), regardless of the actual time of call, or its duration.
Hundreds of thousands of consumers are unwittingly paying more than they thought for some of the calls they are making. We complained to Telkom about this, not to get a solution, of course, because monopolies don’t do that, but to give them an opportunity to comment.
Both the first and second consumer clerks reiterated the tariff book, and simply explained how the charges worked. One thing they could not explain was how a consumer was supposed to work out the distance from their ‘phone to a given destination.

“Was it, say, the distance by car between the two phones, or was it ‘as the crow flies?’” I asked.
“Well, if you are going to be sarcastic about it, I can’t really help you,” was her response.
When I explained there was nothing wrong with the phrase ‘as the crow flies’ that it was in common usage in the English language to describe a straight line, she tittered. I was phoning her from Claremont to Bellville (both in the 021 code area). When I asked, how far that was, her first answer was ‘a bit over 50kms’, and to save me costs she kindly offered to call me back. When I asked her how she worked that out, she wasn’t sure, checked with her boss and then came back, and said it was actually about 30kms, so it was a ‘local call’.
It was interesting she used the phrase ‘local’, a habit with which most of us have grown up, assuming local meant local.
It was time to argue further, so I was passed on to the supervisor of account enquiries. “We no longer charge on the basis of ‘long distance’,” he explained, but ‘National 0-50km’ or ‘National >50km’, for calls within South Africa.”
However, an advertisement from Telkom as recently as October 2003 listed sample calls costing 99c a minute, all described as ‘long distance’. See illustration. The manager could not find such a document in his batch of sample advertisements.
He was also unable to explain how the distance was worked out. It seems it is a combination of straight-line distance, adjusted for factors such as the number of exchanges through which a call is routed, and I dare say, failing that, how far it was to travel between the points by car.
The rates are levied in terms of policymakers within Telkom, he added, “which I have to abide by, and try to explain to customers. I have to accept what they dictate; but I guess if I was a consumer out there, my hair would also stand on end.”
Evidently there are no maps available to telephone users to show where the exchanges are. The upshot is that people will have to guess. Telkom actually advises the following procedure: ‘make the calls you usually make, ask for itemised billing (which is free) and then when the bill comes check through the whole list. This will show you which ‘local’ calls if any are charged at long distance rates.’
This is a bit like going to a supermarket, paying for all the groceries and then only being given the bill the following month. You can then decide whether those tins of peas or packets of mince were a good bargain or not, and whether you should buy them again. Most people would agree this notion is totally farcical.
But the trouble does not end there.
Another issue concerns telephone management systems. A business owner might think he’s blocked certain calls, when in fact some long distance calls can still slip through the net where the area code is the same. But for this evidently Telkom has a solution. You can buy ‘Block Call Plus’ at R38.76 (incl. VAT) per month, per line — quite pricey if you are running a switch board, and I dare say quite complicated to manage – in fact impossible if some phones on a given line are to have wider access.
Another option is for users to find out what a given call rate would be for any destination in South Africa (and worldwide, for that matter) by going to www.telkom.net Of course, it is tediously slow, and you have to do it for each telephone number you dial. This, I have to say is also impractical.
The real conclusion of all this is simply that it is not the first time this monopoly has used sleight of hand. Callers may over time become aware of the subtlety of local/long-distance, but there is really no solution for those wanting to control their costs.
The only answer is for enough people to complain. You must get a ‘Call Detail Report’ (itemised billing) every month, and if you find any ‘local’ calls being rated long distance, help the consumer by bombarding Telkom with complaints.
Direct these to Pretoria where Telkom’s policymakers live. The number is 0800 600 126 — and it’s a free call! By Nigel Benetton

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:17.1 1st February, 2004
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