BT criticised for cost of jail phone calls

Consumer organisations are to issue a “super complaint” today against BT over the high charges it makes for prisoners’ phone calls, pointing out that a 30-minute call from within a jail can end up costing seven times the amount payable from a public pay phone.
Consumer organisations are to issue a “super complaint” today against BT over the high charges it makes for prisoners’ phone calls, pointing out that a 30-minute call from within a jail can end up costing seven times the amount payable from a public pay phone.
 
The National Consumer Council, which is backed by the Prison Reform Trust in its complaint, says that phone charges inside prison are so prohibitively expensive that more than half of all calls made by inmates last less than three minutes.
 
The “super complaint”, under the NCC’s statutory power under competition law, presses Ofcom to start an investigation into whether the prison phone market is significantly harming consumer interests. The problem of phone charges in prisons in England and Scotland has been the subject of repeated criticism from the prisons ombudsman and from independent monitoring boards.
 
A pin-based phone system replaced phonecards in jails in England and Wales in 1998 so that inmates could only ring vetted phone numbers. Prisoners can buy pinphone credits in multiples of £1 at the prison shops and canteens. International calls can be made only with £3 and £5 cards.
 
For prisoners connecting to landlines there is a minimum charge of 10p for 55 seconds. Extra time is charged at 1p for every 5.5 seconds. This compares with 40p for the first 20 minutes from BT pay phones. Calls to mobiles from jails cost 19p to 63p a minute. The NCC says that because of these charges prisoners make fewer, shorter calls; the average lasts only four and a half minutes. A quarter of all calls from prisons are under a minute long and half last less than three minutes.
 
Prison wages are about £8 a week, so a seven-minute phone call, costing 77p, eats up nearly 10% of an inmate’s earnings. More than a quarter of the money spent weekly at prison shops is on phone credits.
 
Consumer groups hope Ofcom’s investigation will disclose the details of an unpublished contract between BT and the Prison Service in England and Wales, and another one between Siemens and the Scottish Prison Service.
 
Philip Cullum, the National Consumer Council’s acting chief executive, said: “We are extremely concerned … just because the consumers are prisoners it doesn’t mean they should be exploited.” He said call charges outside prisons had fallen by 60% since the BT Prison Service contract had been signed, yet rates for calls within prisons had remained high “for an outdated service”.
 
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that almost half the people in prison lost contact with their families, and those without a supportive family network were six times more likely to reoffend after being released.
 

BT to launch super-fast broadband

BT today announced plans to spend £1.5bn building a super-fast broadband network across the UK over the next four years.
BT today announced plans to spend £1.5bn building a super-fast broadband network across the UK over the next four years.
 
The plan would connect 10m homes, around 40% of the UK, to a new fibre-optic based network and replace the copper wires that link most homes today.
 
BT said it would transform the experience of using the internet, allowing families to watch high-definition video over the internet while running other bandwidth-heavy services, for example.
 
But the plan is likely to spark fears that smaller rivals could lose out, as the new network could give the former state-owned monopoly a significant advantage. It also risks creating a new “broadband divide” between urban and rural areas, although the company insisted it wanted to bring faster internet services to large swathes of the UK.
 
In an announcement this morning, BT’s new chief executive, Ian Livingston, said the plan marked “the beginning of a new chapter in Britain’s broadband story”.
 
“Broadband has boosted the UK economy and is now an essential part of our customers’ lives. We now want to make a step-change in broadband provision which will offer faster speeds than ever before,” said Livingston, who took office in April.
 
The financial markets reacted coolly to the plan, with BT’s shares dropping 2% to 198p. The decline was partly due to the suspension of the firm’s share buyback scheme, which will help pay for the broadband plan.
 
BT’s plan for faster broadband will involve laying fibre directly to new homes as they are built, called fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). At other sites, it will lay fibre most of the way to the home, called fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC).
 
FTTP will provide the highest speeds, up to 100 megabits per second. FTTC, which is slower because of the copper wire link between cabinet and home, will initially offer up to 40Mbps.
 
Areas where fibre is not rolled out, probably the more remote and less populated parts of the UK, will remain on slower broadband technology, called ADSL. BT said it was “improving all the time”, with the fastest version, ADSL2+, offering a maximum speed of 24Mbps.
 
Today’s plan may lead to wrangling between BT and the communications regulator, Ofcom. BT admitted today that it was dependent on hammering out “a new regulatory framework” that will let it profit from the investment.
 
“The funds required are extremely large and companies need confidence that risk-taking can be appropriately rewarded,” it said.
 
Under the current regulatory regime, BT must allow rival service providers to use its network on the same terms as its own retail arm. There would be a huge outcry if that “equivalence” was lost, following the battles between BT, its rivals and the regulators at the start of this decade when Broadband Britain was just an ambition.
 
Earlier this month, Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, said the regulator would favour a framework that allowed operators to make risky investments, and to keep returns commensurate with the risks taken. This was seen as a sign to BT that it would be able to capitalise on the investment needed to build a next-generation broadband network.