MOBILE phone users may be able to make free calls to 0800 numbers under new proposals put forward by the industry watchdog.
Ofcom said it wanted to tackle consumer confusion about costs by bringing mobiles into line with landlines when it comes to so-called “freephone numbers”.
The proposals are part of plans to clarify the range of costs for calling businesses, public services and other organisations on 03, 08, 09 and 118 numbers following research into mobile users’ confusion over the cost of calls.
The vast majority of 0800 phone numbers currently cost mobile callers up to 21p a minute. These would become free under the proposals to bring them in to line with landlines.
Ofcom also proposes to clarify and simplify charges to information, banking, directory inquiry and entertainment services numbers – 08, 09 and 118.
Unless callers are using a BT landline, they currently cannot tell how much they will be charged for such calls.
Consumer groups welcomed the news, saying it would clarify the situation. “For too long, mobile customers have faced a tangled and confusing array of charges when calling non-geographic numbers,” said Ernest Doku, a technology expert at uSwitch.com.
“Most frustrating of all, so-called ‘freephone’ numbers are often nothing of the sort when calling from a mobile.
“Many people now have a mobile as their primary phone and rarely use a landline, so these changes are very welcome, and should make mobile prices more transparent. Crucially, they should free us to make the most of our mobile phones without fear of huge bills.”
Communications Consumer Panel chairman Bob Warner added: “The proposals are good news for consumers. Charges for 0800 calls from mobiles particularly affect people on lower incomes, who are more likely to rely on a mobile at home and use it to make calls to essential services.
“Ofcom’s proposals respond to our concerns that calling non-geographic numbers can be confusing and costly.”
The proposals would give “clear, transparent information” and help consumers regain trust in these numbers, Ofcom said.
Almost every consumer and company uses non-geographic numbers to call businesses and government agencies such as HM Revenue and Customs and NHS Direct, make payments for services and vote on TV shows.
However, Ofcom said research showed many people were confused about what non-geographic numbers were for and how much they cost, resulting in a lack of trust in the services.
As a result, consumers made fewer calls to the special numbers and providers were discouraged from using them.
Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said: “Consumers are often confused about how much they will pay to call these number ranges. Under our proposals, people will have much clearer information and there will be greater competition on prices.
“By making calls to 0800 numbers free from all phones, we will clear up any uncertainty about making calls, especially from mobiles, to the benefit of consumers and providers alike.”
The watchdog said it intended to make a final decision on the new rules by early next year.