Clarification of the pricing and scope of telephone-based value-added service (VAS)

ARCEP has announced the conclusions it has drawn from the public consultation on the pricing of value-added telephone services, and particularly numbers starting with 080 and 081. The Authority confirms the restricted scope of application for surcharged numbers, and introduces measures geared to achieving a clearer pricing scheme that will benefit consumers, to take effect on 1 January 2010.

 

Paris, 21 December 2009

ARCEP confirms the restricted scope of application for surcharged numbers and the ban on using them for calls whose purpose is to allow consumers to monitor the proper execution of their service contract or to lodge a complaint.

Telephone calls to short, four-digit numbers starting with 1 or 3, or to ten-digit numbers starting with 08, allow consumers to connect to service platforms which can serve a range of functions: connect them with different departments in a company or an administration, provide practical information, sell them information or content, allow them to take part in a contest, etc. Calls to these numbers are billed at a special tariff which is chosen by the entity providing the service, and which differs from the rate applied to ordinary person-to-person calls, whether fixed (geographical numbers starting with 01, 02, 03, 04, 05 or 09) or mobile (numbers currently starting with 06 and soon with 06 and 07). This is why they are referred to as calls to special services or value-added services. Moreover, depending on the price charged for these calls, compared to calls made to ordinary person-to-person fixed numbers, these numbers are referred to as either surcharged or non-surcharged.

The Chatel Act (1) which applies only to electronic communication service providers, and the Law on modernising the economy (LME) (2), which applies to all enterprises, forbids the use of surcharged numbers for calls whose purpose is to allow consumers to monitor the proper execution of their service contract or to lodge a complaint.

As a result, and as part of broader efforts devoted to value-added services, from 17 July to 30 September 2009, ARCEP held a public consultation on numbers starting with 080 and 081 (referred to, respectively, as "verts" (green), non-surcharged, and "azur" (azure), surcharged numbers). The goal of this consultation was to examine the possibility and the method to be used for decreasing the tariff applied to "azur" numbers starting with 081, so that they no longer carry an extra charge.

With this in mind, the Authority had proposed two options for making changes to the pricing scheme (3) applied to 081 numbers: the first option imposed identical pricing to calls to geographical numbers, and the second option lowered the maximum tariff that could be charged for these numbers to 2 or 3 eurocents a minute.

ARCEP received 27 responses to the consultation, from stakeholders from along the value chain: consumers, electronic communications operators and companies that use "azur" numbers. The Authority retained the following points from these contributions:

  • businesses are requesting clarification on the numbers that can be used for services covered by the Chatel Act and the LME;
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  • a great many enterprises have already switched their services that are governed by these laws to new non-surcharged numbers: geographical numbers (starting with 01, 02, 03, 04 or 05) or non-geographical numbers (starting with 09) and "verts" numbers (starting with 080 or four-digit numbers starting with 1 or 3);
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  • several contributors recognized that the phrase "price of a local call" associated with "azur" numbers needed to stop being employed as it gives false information to a great many customers, since the price applied to "azur" calls is often higher than the price of a local call generally applied by operators;
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  • telecom operators and a number of businesses that are not banned from using surcharged numbers would like to maintain the current pricing scheme applied to numbers starting with 081, and their "surcharged" status, as it would be very costly for them to change their tariffs.
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In light of these contributions, the Authority decided not to alter the tariff applied to the 081 block of numbers: "azur" numbers will therefore remain surcharged numbers.

In exchange, and in accordance with the Chatel Act and the LME, electronic communications operators and enterprises cannot use long numbers starting with 081, or short numbers starting with 1 or 3 to which "azur" pricing is applied, for calls whose purpose is to allow consumers to monitor the proper execution of their service contract or to lodge a complaint.

On the matter of short numbers, ARCEP asks that operators create a non toll-free tariff rapidly, and in accordance with its Decision No. 2008-0512 of 6 May 2008, in other words which would be included in fixed and mobile flat rates and whose price does not exceed the price of fixed call termination.

Lastly, operators and enterprises must abandon the notion of "the price of a local call" when referring to this tariff and these numbers. The Authority invites the players to define a designation to apply to the pricing of these numbers in the first quarter of 2010.

Market players propose additional changes

During the public consultation, several players also asked the Authority to create a new sub-block of numbers in the 080 block, which would be both non-surcharged and not toll-free. ARCEP holds the view that, first, creating this sub-block would cause more confusion for consumers (given that the 080 block of numbers would include both free and surcharged numbers) and, second, that current non-surcharged numbers (geographical, starting with 09 and 080) already provide satisfactory alternative solutions for businesses and their customers, notably in terms of the quality of the service rendered. The large number of services that use these numbers offer proof of their success.

In addition, some players requested the creation of a new sub-block of numbers in the 081 block, priced at 0.10€/call, for machine-to-machine purposes. The Authority finds this an interesting solution but requests that all stakeholders be consulted, and believes that it should be examined with respect to medium-term pricing reforms and the legitimate use of surcharged numbers. In the same vein, the possibility of applying individualised prices on a number-by-number basis, which some players requested, could only be implemented at a much later date, and only with the approval of all stakeholders along the value chain.

Lastly, on the matter of having calls to certain numbers included in mobile operators’ unmetered free calling hours, the Authority does not want to make changes to the numbering plan at this stage.

Several measures that will benefit consumers to be introduced in 2010

Mobile operators will streamline the pricing scheme applied to calls to 081 "azur" numbers, starting on 1 January 2010

In addition to clarifying the scope of application for surcharged numbers, the Authority is pleased by the improvements proposed by the French Telecoms Federation (Fédération française des telecoms) aimed at decreasing and streamlining the pricing scheme applied to calls originating on mobile networks.

Starting on 1 January 2010, calls to numbers starting with 081 will no longer be systematically billed on top of flat rates: operators are required to include the "call" portion in mobile flat rates. The "azur" surcharge will nevertheless continue to be billed on top of the flat rate. This measure is a follow-up to the measure that has required "verts" numbers starting with 080 to be included in flat rates since 1 April 2009.

Free information on pricing will be provided at the start of the call for the most expensive VAS numbers, starting on 1 January 2010

The order dated 10 June 2009, issued by the Minister responsible for consumption, strengthens measures applying to pricing information on VAS numbers for which consumers are charged more than 0.15 € per minute or per call (4), when calling from a fixed line, starting on 1 January 2010. Depending on the case, this price could make a distinction between the portion of the tariff that applies to the call, and the portion applying to the service.

This measure will provide value-added service users with clearer information. It will be extended to all surcharged numbers on 1 January 2011 (5).

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These different measures, which are to be applied to VAS numbers in the very near future, will help correct the main problem areas that are currently affecting the market.

ARCEP will continue to work with all the players over the coming months to achieve reforms in the medium term aimed at:

  • defining a clear and understandable pricing structure for all VAS numbers;<//span>
  • developing harmonised and systematic pricing information and methods for displaying and communicating that information;
  • instil compliance with a professional code of conduct over time, and adapt it to new applications, the goal being to guarantee the legitimacy of the use of surcharged numbers and ensure that consumers are being offered fair and honest services;
  • modernise the services offered to businesses.

         

    From a more general perspective, one of the Authority’s priorities for 2010 is to improve relations between consumers and electronic communications operators – a process that will involve providing a reminder and a specific definition of the applicable principles that must absolutely be respected.

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    (1) Law No. 2008-3, dated 3 January 2008, for the development of competition for the benefit of consumers, and particularly Article 16.
    (2) Law No. 2008-776 on modernising the economy, dated 4 August 2008, and particularly Article 87.
    (3) The current rate is 7.8 c€/call + 2.8 c€/min. in peak calling hours and 1.4 c€/min. in off-peak hours.
    (4) As of 1 January 2010, this will apply to VAS numbers starting with 0891, 0892, 0897 and 0899 and short, four-digit numbers starting with 1 or 3 with the same tariff.
    (5) As of 1 January 2011, it will apply to all VAS numbers, except those starting with 080.