Telecom 0867 charges might come back

Telecom doesn't rule out reinstating its two cents per minute charge for Internet calls to non-0867 numbers, despite the Commerce Commission taking it to court over the numbering scheme.

Telecom doesn't rule out reinstating its two cents per minute charge for Internet calls made to non-0867 phone numbers despite the Commerce Commission taking the telco giant to court over the numbering scheme.

Telecom will also not rule out defending its charging policy in the Disputes Tribunal if necessary - even though it has repeatedly refunded the charges of those, like PC World columnist Geoff Palmer, who have gone to the Tribunal to challenge them.

"We would have to look at that on a case-by-case basis," Telecom's manager for industry services, Greg McAlister said in a hastily-convened conference call yesterday afternoon.

Telecom waived the charge in the wake of an agreement it signed with Clear Communications three months ago. That agreement is due to expire at the end of this month, and Telecom won't rule out re-instating the charge - although it says discussions with Clear are quite advanced and seem to indicate there will be no need to do that. Clear Communications would not comment on the matter of the interconnect agreement.

The Commission announced yesterday it had commenced court action against Telecom, alleging the company contravened section 36 of the Commerce Act in introducing 0867. The announcement capped off an investigation that has run for nearly a year.

"Telecom sought to prevent or deter competitive conduct by other telecommunications network operators and Internet service providers," said the Commission's head, John Belgrave.

Telecom could face a fine of up to $5 million and the court could "impose a wide range of orders and injunctions" according to the Commission statement.

McAlister said the Commission "flies in the face of progress made towards commercial resolution of differences between companies."

Telecom is also less than thrilled that the Commission didn't consult with it before announcing the decision.

"We would expect some dialogue before it was decided to issue proceedings and we're disappointed the Commission has chosen no alternative way to resolve the issue."

Clear Communications' CEO Tim Cullinane issued a statement saying he supported the Commerce Commission's decision, describing it as "an important step for consumers and for competition in the telecommunications market"

Cullinane said the Commission's view that the 0867 scheme was anti-competitive was consistent with Clear's view that the scheme had deprived New Zealand's Internet users of choice. He said said Clear would closely study the Commission's action and would consider its own stance.

Ihug managing director Nick Wood said he had nothing to say on the decision: "It's none of my business."

PC World's Palmer has taken Telecom to the Tribunal twice over this issue. He's calling for everyone with a Telecom bill for dialling a non-0867 ISP to take Telecom to the Tribunal. In both instances Telecom has backed down and waived the charges, even going beyond the amount Palmer claimed they charged him.

"They've refunded all my Internet use charges." Palmer says that amounts to $226.02, even though he was only seeking $95.85. Telecom usually offers full reimbursement of the 2 cent/minute charges only to users who switch to an 0867-prefixed number. Palmer has not switched, and has no plans to. He and two other users have taken Telecom to the Tribunal and all three have had their charges waived.

"That is a case-by-case basis and I would encourage everyone with such a bill to fill out my form letter and send it off to make sure they're at the top of the pile," says Palmer, referring to a letter he has drafted that is available on the PC World Web site .

In a letter to the principal disputes tribunal referee, Telecom's litigation solicitor, Ronald Pol wrote: "defending the few claims we have received would cost Telecom far more than their value -- particularly in lost management time of the responsible business manager."

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