News analysis
Money and phone
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  • The cost of calling a South African business from a cellphone - particularly those branded ShareCall - is not as clear as you may think.
  • Widely-used ShareCall numbers will likely require you to pay your full standard rate per second.
  • And, in most cases, free minutes don’t apply, either.
  • Here’s what you need to know about calling business lines from a cellphone in South Africa.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

How a business chooses a phone number is - in theory - simple.

Owners can choose to pay the full bill of incoming calls, or the long-distance portion if you are phoning from far away. Or, if they run some kind of “service”, usually in the form of adult entertainment, they can charge an astronomical amount for you to call in.

But figuring out how much a call to that specific number is going to cost you, particularly when using a cell phone, is a more complex matter.

Landline numbers in South Africa, like those typically used by national call centres and businesses, and so-called value-added services, are divided into several broad categories, which are supposed to offer some indication of how expensive the call will be, and who foots the bill. 

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) manages these so-called “rate bands”, alongside all other numbering resources in the country. These rate bands include local, toll-free, shared, and premium-rated phone numbers. And although Icasa's Numbering Plan Regulations further refined these in 2016, determining exactly how much a call to each will cost you is not immediately clear, and is still, in most cases, set by each individual cellular provider.

Here’s how to know what you’re likely to be charged when calling business lines in South Africa

Local numbers 

Local numbers are identifiable by prefixes like 012, 011, or 021, and are charged based on where the call originates from.

But that was in the days when you phoned one landline number from another landline telephone. Most cellular network operators have introduced flat rates for all South African calls, and don’t differentiate between regions within the country, which means you’ll likely pay your maximum standard rate per second.

Unlike other categories, though, these landline numbers are in most cases eligible to be paid for with free minutes.

Zero-rated and toll-free calls

Cellular operators, and Telkom, have the ability to zero-rate certain calls entirely. These are usually reserved for emergency services, and customer support for users on that specific network. 

As a caller, toll-free landline numbers (identifiable by their 0800 prefixes) have the same result as zero-rated numbers, in that they shouldn’t cost you anything. The difference lies on the receiving business’s side, which usually has to foot the bill for the toll-free call. 

In previous years, Icasa's regulatory framework confused matters. It only mandated that toll-free numbers be free if the calls originated from the same network - for example, Telkom to Telkom. As a result, calls from cell phones to 0800 numbers were often charged at standard rates.

But recently this has been regulated, and legitimate toll-free numbers now have prerecorded messages stating their no-fee policy.

Premium-rated

Premium-rated calls are charged at higher than the standard rate published by cellular operators, often several rands per minute, and are typically used as a revenue generation tool by network operators and various content providers. They are mostly used for over-the-phone "services", like psychic readings or adult entertainment. 

Ilonka Badenhorst, Managing Executive at Wireless Application Service Providers Association (WASPA), says these can under no circumstances be used for call centres to generate revenue.

“WASPA has strict provisions for premium-rated numbers in our code of conduct. For example, there must be a clear announcement of the costs at the beginning of the call. The consumer has to be informed about the price on at least two respective occasions, of which one must be in the marketing or promotional material, and one on the active call - and if you drop the call at that point you should not be charged,” says Badenhorst.

According to Icasa regulations, you can identify premium phone numbers by their prefixes of 090 (of which 0902 is reserved for adult content), 091, 092.

Shared fees

Phone numbers that allow for a split in some costs - also known as ShareCall numbers - are identifiable by their 086 prefixes. They are perhaps the most common - and confusing - of all business numbers in South Africa. 

086 numbers are largely the domain of national call centres, and their initial purpose was to do away with a caller having to pay long-distance charges. Instead, callers simply pay the local standard rate - and the business must cover the long-distance portion.

Although calls to these numbers are not charged at a premium rate - as some believe - there’s very little “sharing” going on when you call them from a cell phone, as will typically be the case. Rather than share the rate for the entire call, as the name ShareCall suggests, cell phone callers still pay full standard rates, given that in most cases, operators now charge flat rates for all calls.

The cost of a call to a ShareCall number therefore varies according to specific contracts and prepaid packages – and in most cases, free minutes will not apply for these calls either.

Interconnect fees

Badenhorst says that calls to 086 call centres often involve several steps, and it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going to be charged to the caller.

“When you phone an 0860 number, you don’t know what’s happening in the background, and how that call is routed. It’s a free economy, so each network operator can set their pricing models to whatever they choose to, it doesn’t have to compare to their competitors,” she says. 

The industry is not entirely unregulated, though, and so-called interconnect agreements between the different operators, which Badenhorst says are “highly regulated and quite highly contested” stipulate how much one operator charges another to terminate a call on its network.

This interconnect rate has dropped steadily over the years and has helped reduce telecommunications costs. In 2010 the interconnect rate was over R1 - currently, Icasa has regulated this to be just 9c.

Free minutes do not apply

Because of the confusion regarding share calls, complaints often surface that some call centre numbers are “premium-rated” - but Badenhorst says this is unlikely. And, if the business is a member of WASPA, it would go directly against the body’s code of conduct.

“WASPA’s code dictates that customer support lines have to be offered on a South African network, at standard rates. They are not allowed to have customer support lines charged at any premium rate,” says Badenhorst.

Badenhorst points out, however, that this is not an industry-wide approach.

“If I’m a consumer, and I phone a company or a customer support line, I’m expecting it not to cost me money. So ideally those types of calls should be toll-free, but many companies still charge for these - not necessarily because they don’t want to zero-rate them, but because a lot of the time they can’t get access to toll-free numbers to do it,” she says.

Further complicating matters is that many cell phone contract holders expect calls to all numbers to fall within their allotted available free monthly minutes - but this is seldom the case.

“A lot of people get free minutes on their cell phone contracts - but those always come with conditions. For example, most free minutes only apply during certain times, or over weekends, or to calls on the same network,” Badenhorst says.

In these instances, calls to 086 numbers aren’t free and will be charged at standard rates - and calls to premium or value-added services numbers will likely be significantly higher.

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