TELECOMS – Card sharp

Making a phone call should be a simple, modern-day convenience, but cards for off-site communication. Catherine Chetwynd reports. on a business trip it can be nothing but hassle. You have to work out how to get an outside line on a hotel telephone and then wrestle with the sometimes impenetrable tones of a foreign operator. As if that’s not enough, the hotel will no doubt add a vast mark-up to the cost of the call.

But it does not have to be like that. Calling cards are invaluable to the traveller in terms of saved time and temper, and to the company accountant they are invaluable in terms of money saved.

Recent research carried out by National Opinion Poll (NOP) on behalf of BT showed that a one-minute call to the UK from a hotel in Hong Kong would cost #4.40, but only #1.30 on a BT Chargecard – and BT is not necessarily the cheapest. Savings between Europe and the UK are not as great, but still worthwhile: compare #1.13 for a one-minute call from a hotel in France, Germany or Spain, with the BT Chargecard cost of 76p. Worthwhile savings can also be made against mobile phones.

Calling cards are not to be confused with prepaid cards. These are bought according to a predetermined value, for example, #10 worth of calls, and the card is used until it runs out of credit. Prepaid cards can be renewed by phone with a credit card, and are aimed largely at the leisure and promotional markets.

There are several major players in the business calling-card market, offering a range of add-on services, methods of payment and charges. Account numbers are printed on the card and, as with bank cards, a PIN is supplied under separate cover. Some allow clients to choose their PIN.

A freephone access code is available in most countries and, having dialled that, a recorded English-speaking voice will ask you to dial your account number and PIN, as well as the phone number of the person required. You can speak for as long as you like and the cost of the call appears on your calling-card bill, not on your hotel bill.

To cater for hotels that block freephone or calling-card numbers, many companies allow you to phone an operator, who rings you back and connects you to your required destination. This means you pay for only the brief conversation with the operator. Energis, World Telecom, Interglobe and BT offer this, although BT charges #1.75 for the pleasure.

Otherwise, services are direct-dial and the operator cuts in only if you dial the wrong PIN number or have problems getting a connection. The ability to dial follow-on calls is useful, particularly in hotels where freephone numbers are blocked. This allows cardholders to have a series of conversations without ringing off, giving the impression to the hotel switchboard that they are making just one phone call.

Most suppliers offer global access and you can phone from just about anywhere to anywhere – business destinations are comprehensively covered.

For companies worried that their executives will run amok with the card, calling their friends and families from abroad, some services offer a call-blocking facility, allowing clients to restrict the numbers they will pay for, such as to the office, main suppliers and clients. Energis and Interglobe offer this, as does World Telecom by special arrangement.

According to Amanda Doran, marketing manager of Interglobe, it is popular.

‘There is no point in having a card to control phone costs when a company could end up paying a bill that’s 60% personal calls,’ she says. So how do you know which calling card to choose?

There are several points to look for. First, rates vary surprisingly.

A one-minute call from Thailand, for example, ranges between #1.30 (AT&T) to #1.98 (Alpha). An American company such as AT&T may offer the cheapest rates from the US to the UK, but possibly the most expensive from Australia to the UK.

So an organisation might want to issue a number of cards to its staff, according to where they travel most. But resellers such as Interglobe and World Telecom use a smart box, which automatically switches to the best-value lines, allowing them to offer the optimum price for a call at any time. This does not affect the user, just the final bill.

Extra service provision varies

Follow-on calls are offered on most cards, as is free operator service, but speed-dial numbers are not automatically available. These allow cardholders to condense account number, PIN and frequently-called numbers into a short code. Alpha, Cable & Wireless and Global One have no such capacity, while AT&T, BT and Energis offer a facility for nine speed-dial numbers, World Telecom for 50 numbers, and Interglobe an unlimited number.

Add-on services are also worth looking at. Some provide voice and fax mail, teleconferencing, and message-forwarding systems in the event of engaged numbers, travel assistance, and even sports and lottery results.

These are currently available at no extra charge but Interglobe’s Doran foresees changes. ‘I think this will lead to a two-tier system, with basic-level calling cards, and a platinum level providing extra services for a fee,’ she says.

But some people find the value-added options add nothing but stress – after all, there is enough to think about when travelling, without having to handle conference calls.

Monthly billing is also considered an advantage and accounts are itemised, giving details of the number called, date, length of call and cost. Most calls are charged by the minute or part thereof, although those that charge per second represent better value. Billing can be by invoice, direct to a personal or corporate credit card or to a home phone line. Reclaiming VAT can easily be calculated because clients are billed in pounds sterling.

The one advantage most calling cards do not offer is cheaper national and international calls from the UK. World Telecom’s Saver Plus and Interglobe’s SpeakEasy and Low Call, however, claim to offer considerable savings over BT rates.

World Telecom’s service requires the company switchboard to be specially programmed and employees working from home can be included, while Interglobe’s SpeakEasy is used from one registered number and its Low Call can be accessed from any UK phone.

To date, the calling-card industry has been unregulated, but this is about to change with the setting up of the European Calling Card Services Association (ECCSA).

Members are required to use approved equipment, have an acceptable credit history and on-going record, to have been trading for a minimum of one year in one European state or other major designated market and to have adequate anti-fraud provision.

With the potential excellent savings and the forthcoming protection of a trade body, it is time to become card sharp. Catherine Chetwynd is a freelance writer

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