ComReg considers industry proposals regarding wholesale charges for non-geographic numbers

Non-geographic numbers are used by organisations to allow incoming calls at a fixed or reduced rate. This can be of particular use to businesses who want to ensure that customers can contact them, without fear of incurring large costs eg, in the case of help desk or customer service numbers.  In Ireland non-geographic numbers are identified by the prefix 18xx eg, 1850 or 1890. The retail charges for calls to non-geographic numbers are capped within Ireland. 

As regards wholesale charging arrangements, the current practice has been for fixed-line operators to deduct a retention from retail revenues ie, retention charges.  Fixed line operators have tended to set these retention charges based on the regulated wholesale interconnect rates of the fixed line incumbent, eircom,  so that each fixed line operator is in effect charging the same wholesale retention charge as eircom.  

Although the current approach to wholesale charging may seem pragmatic, certain operators have been pushing for a change to the status quo, and the current level of symmetry.  ComReg has not expressed any formal view on the proposed changes but has identified the potential for any changes to the current regime to have significant consequences not just for fixed line operators, but also for those businesses and entities that currently use non-geographic numbers. ComReg has indicated that any changes could therefore be highly disruptive.

Of particular interest is ComReg’s recognition that changes to the current wholesale charging regime might also affect ‘consumers’. This might suggest that, to the extent changes are made at a wholesale level, ComReg might look to amend the current retail regime under which retail charges are capped. Removal of a cap at retail level would not only be bad news for consumers, but ultimately might call into question the commercial rationale for businesses using non-geographic numbers for certain customer services such as customer helplines.

In order to enable a fuller debate on the proposals and their implications, ComReg organised an initial industry workshop on 27 February 2014, with a follow-up workshop on 13 March. Copies of the presentations made by British Telecommunications Ireland Ltd (BT) and eircom at the 27 February workshop are available from ComReg to interested parties on request.  BT raised a number of concerns with the current symmetric system for fixed operators and made proposals on how to address its concerns (including the fact that the current regime only applies to fixed operators, and does not include mobile operators). BT’s proposals include (i) setting up a new number range – the retention charges to this new number range would then operate in a similar manner to the current 0818 range; and (ii) amending the current symmetric (ie, “deemed to be regime”) for existing numbers such as 1800.  

Before conducting further industry discussions, ComReg has invited interested parties’ views on the current regime and BT’s proposals. The deadline for responding on these questions was extended from 3 April to 10 April 2014. It will be interesting to see industry’s views on the BT proposals and whether change is always a good thing!