Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Phonecards and payphones

Before we get to the phones - and this is important enough to my well-being that I'm putting it outside the <lj-cut> - it's time to play "What's that song?". There is a song going through my head and I don't know what it is. I will supply what clues I can and hopefully some kind bright spark will be able to identify it.

I believe it's possibly 3-6 months old and is in a gentle dance/pop style, so inoffensive that it can be used as muzak in Woolworths. (It's also being used in an ITV trailer that's on at the moment for a crime show, which is what has brought it to mind.) There seems to be one female singer on it, who sings a verse and then sings, very roughly, "ahhhhh ahh-ahh-ahh-ahhhhh ahhhhh". The first ahhh is an octave above the last one, with the second and fourth being a perfect fifth above the last, and the third and fifth being a perfect fourth above the last. Does that help, or is it as confusing as "East Fife 4, Forfar 5"? The only other memorable thing about the song is that other parts of it have some rather space-y-ish synthesiser.

Any help on this issue gratefully received and appreciated. Before you suggest it, it definitely isn't "I know a song that'll get on your nerves" by Joe Pasquale, though it has a similar effect. I vaguely recall hearing about some service which will identify music that you play down the phone line, but I don't have the required fifteen seconds of it and my impression of the ahhh section is unlikely to suffice. Bah. (Googling for "lyric ah ah ah ah ah ah" also proved ineffective.)

2) No more news from Finland and the World Puzzle Federation's web site's forum seems to be down at the moment. (Maybe they're all partying really hard now the competition is over, or something.) If I were to announce that Wei-Hwa Huang won the individual championship and that the USA won the team competition, would you be prepared to accept that I'm merely playing the odds rather than basing it on hard fact?

3) From the World Puzzle Championship we move to an event mentioned today on the local news, the World Leek and Onion Championship. These are taking place in Ashington, just north of Newcastle, which gave an excuse to feature lots of elephantine, almost grotesque leeks. I had a spring onion a month or two ago where the bulb at the end was as big as a large grape, so I dread to wonder if they had watermelon-sized onions and the like.

4) My body is feeling pretty good. The pricked finger still feels a little bit itchy (specifically, I can feel what feels like the inside of the finger) from its "sharp scratch", plus all these keystrokes can't be helping it. The arm from which all the blood was taken has a slightly more visible wound than usual, but it's no more than eight or nine millimetres long. (Aside: does the concept of a mibimetre, by analogy to - and extension from - a mebimetre, have any value?) Certainly both arms have felt like they're working at a good 99% of normal at the very least.

5) Today I sent off my neatly-printed complaint to the duty office of the offending channel. We shall see how much the various bodies disagree with me. Recently I've seen a comment somewhere that the primary motivation for people to make complaints like this is to make them feel less helpless; I can see where this comment is coming from. I nearly made a complaint about some of the content of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! but decided against on the grounds that the crueler aspects of the Bush Tucker Trials didn't actually exceed what might be considered to be the established standards of comic wind-ups. On the other hand, it was cynical at best of ITV to feature rather cruel and aggressive stunts on a show which was presented by stars who are still primarily associated with their children's TV work and where the action was recapped on a 5:15pm repeats show, a time regarded as the traditional stepping-stone between children's and adult television.

6) Geeky celebration: this computer is now over 20% of the way through testing the primality of 233299459-1, yay! (20.0603% as I type.) If I were never to turn this PC off then I should finish the calculation next June, so in practice I'll be reasonably happy to finish it by the June after that. What? Why are you rolling your eyes like that?

7) "That John Major, eh? *tsk* It's always the quiet ones you've got to look out for." Er, maybe. Certainly it's a reminder to frequently check your assumptions about the morality and ethical behaviour or otherwise of politicians and question whether they remain sound. I have a gut feeling that politics in 2050 will judge Thatcher and Blair to both have been relatively good prime ministers and Major to have been a relatively poor one, by whatever criteria a prime minister can be judged, but I don't recall the Major years having been terribly catastrophic for the country. High interest rates were just something we were used to at the time, in the way that we are now used to low interest rates. Not sure that that reads too analytically... I refer myself to the comment that the honourable gentleman made some mow-ments earlier.

8) It's the Mascot Grand National at Huntingdon tomorrow, as reported by local lad ericklendl. This must almost certainly be the largest collection of people in fur suits that has ever gathered in Britain outside an overt furry fandom convention. By strange coincidence, I attended Furrycon North in 1999, but that wasn't a furry fandom convention - all to do with board games, I'm afraid. Some day I may investigate whether Furrycon in Britain once was a furry fandom convention (or, at least, whether the people who organised it had a furry fandom connection) at some point.

9) The major rant of the evening concerns phonecards.

There have been coin-operated payphones in this country since 1886 and very soon afterwards people discovered that it was possible to remove these coins for personal gain. Moving right through the BT site link by link, in 1981 BT introduced phonecards - plastic cards representing pre-paid phone call credit which meant that there could exist payphone boxes which operated without collecting money and so without being vandalised. I think they came in at about the same time the minimum cost of a payphone call went up from 8p to 10p and a new batch of touch-tone (!!) payphones stopped accepting coins smaller than 10p. Bear in mind that I would have been a wee kiddy at the time and 10p represented a fairly substantial chunk of money. (I suspect I started getting pocket money on my seventh birthday in October '82 - 70p per week, naturally, of which at least 20p was to be saved.)

The mechanism for recording value on this first batch of phonecards was quite primitive; the machine made marks on the card in positions according to how much credit you had already used. Jumping ahead to 1995, the word had got round that it was possible to, ahem, recharge your own phonecards by application of a certain set of tapes and chemicals to the relevant parts of the card. BT then moved to a second generation of card which featured a microchip upon which record of the stored value was kept. This necessitated a completely different type of payphone and a lot of replacement. These payphones were a little more versatile in dealing with stored credit that didn't have to be an exact multiple of tenpence (specifically, if you made ten successive 11p calls then it only deducted GBP 1.10 of credit rather than ten times rounded-up-to-20p) but tended to be a little less robust at dealing with the cards themselves. You frequently had to jiggle your card within the reader, pushing it in, pulling it out and even trying another phone before you could find one which would accept your card. Not the best sort of jiggery-pokery.

Advances in telecommunications technology continued apace as did legislation changes and in the mid-to-late-'90s a secondary industry in cheap international phone calls sprung up; I believe that calling cards had existed around the world for many years already, but they're a relatively recent innovation here. In about late 2000, BT struck back with the phonecardplus, its own calling card. It had the gimmick that if you inserted it in a particular new sort of payphone then it would automatically dial the access number and automatically type in your 16-digit card code so that you didn't have to. Alternatively, you could use it as a regular calling card from any other sort of line, the cost of the call coming off your card and only the cost to the 0800 access number (usually free except from mobile phones and through some hotel phone systems) being applied immediately.

I had a phonecardplus. I quite liked it. The facility to use it to call from any phone - even those without a phonecard slot where you had to type digits aplenty in - was a definite plus. The twenty-second delay between inserting the card and being able to actually start making your call was a definite minus, as was the fact that you had to have a computer voice tell you down the phone line how much credit you had remaining rather than being able to read it directly off the payphone's LCD screen, as was the increased cost of calls, as was the needless card expiry date - not a feature that had previously been an issue on payphones and a slightly cynical way to ensure inbuilt obsolescence. However, phonecardplus was effectively the most convenient game in town and so I was happy to use it.

Once all the credit had expired on the latest phonecardplus, I threw it away. (It is possible to recharge the card with payment from a credit card, but the minimum was either GBP 5 or GBP 10 and I only wanted to buy another GBP 3 of credit - which needed a brand new card.) I didn't have need for one for a while - then, about a month or two ago, I tried to buy another one. I tried in all the usual places: W. H. Smith have stopped doing them, the Post Office have stopped doing them, seven (count 'em! Seven!) local newsagents have stopped doing them, even Sainsbury's the supermarket has stopped doing them.

Most of these places will sell you prepaid credit vouchers for your pay-as-you-go mobile phone and many of them will sell you other prepaid credit calling cards. W. H. Smith and the Post Office will even sell you such cards under their own brand. Newsagents often have a bewildering variety of cards, all advertising preposterously low rates for international calls. Unfortunately, none of them have a particularly good rate for domestic calls, many of them apply punitive surcharges for calling from payphones, some of them require you to dial a pay number before you can use any of the credit, some apply connection charges per call, some apply administration charges when you don't call, some expire tremendously quickly and so forth. It's all horribly confusing even for someone like me who likes complicated, geeky, heavily numerical systems and you don't feel nearly as confident using any of them as you did when there was the BT Phonecard and that was it.

Now given that I linked to the BT phonecard site above, you can guess the rest of the story. I looked on the BT phonecard site for more information and BT have just stopped selling phonecards altogether. The relevant quote:
Angus Porter, managing director of BT's Consumer Division, said: "While most customers have always preferred to use cash, phonecards were very popular during the 1980s and early 1990s, before the mobile phone explosion. But pre-paid phonecards is now a loss-making business. We have therefore taken the necessary decision to pull out of this market.

"This is one more step in restructuring our payphone business to ensure it is on a firm footing. Today's announcement, together with our investment to create the world's largest public network of Internet kiosks and the review of our street payphones, gives us confidence that there is a solid future for payphones."

I don't own a mobile phone. I don't particularly want to own a mobile phone. (At least, none of the phones which are currently available, though I'd be interested in the next generation but one of the Nokia Communicator 9210i, based on how far the 9210i has come from the now-long-outmoded 9000. The Blackberry sounds very cool, but I don't think that I could do without voice call capabilities altogether.) I certainly don't want to feel that I need a mobile phone, even though it is reported that 70% of people in this country own one these days. A large part of reason for this is that I don't like having to remember to bring objects with me - I'm bad enough with keys - and another large part of the reason for this concerns the fact that I don't get out very much and would find relatively little use for one. (That said, I understand just how handy they can be under certain circumstances.)

More to the point, I certainly don't want the nation as a whole to feel that they need mobile phones. Using your mobile phone when you move from country to country is unduly difficult - even when it's possible, the charges you incur from using it abroad are off-putting. I wouldn't want visitors to this country to feel that they needed a mobile phone, even for a short visit. In short, I want there to be sufficient payphones to rely on. The shift in emphasis away from payphones to mobile phones is concerning, not least because BT must have invested a very considerable sum of money in payphones over the years which eventually will have gone to waste. BT is such a major employer that, despite its well-documented abuses of its monopoly position over the years, I wouldn't like it to suffer unduly without some alternative payphone service provider doing a better job.

Another relevant thing I have noticed recently, apart from that you can't get BT phonecards any more, is that BT is taking a much more lax view to its payphones. When there are a cluster of three or four together and one of the phones breaks down, they no longer fix it, instead leaving a sign saying that they think there are enough payphones left already. The decrease in public utility from going from a cluster of three phones down to two is probably not all that high, but that from going from two phones down to one is considerable and going from one phone down to none is catastrophic. Presumably BT realise this and so are not so cavalier in these circumstances, but it's still a valid cause for concern. (It's also worth noting that a large number of new phones that BT install are capable of public internet access, which would give a tremendous utility increase under some circumstances.)

So let's try to find some sort of plan of action for the future. I could get a BT Chargecard, which would let me make a call from any phone without having to fiddle with cash. On the downside, there is a considerable degree of digit entry involved and calls are charged at a fairly portly 20p/minute. I could continue to use the phonecardplus phones which exist, almost all of which will take a credit/debit card as well as a phonecardplus - the problem is that if you're using a credit/debit card then the minimum charge is a swingeing 50p. (I suspect that many of the new internet-capable phones which exist only take credit/debit cards and give you at least five minutes' internet access for this 50p minimum charge.) I could try to buy a phonecardplus from someone who wants to sell one. I could buy a mobile phone. I could try to buy some other sort of prepaid phone credit card, if I can find one whose terms and conditions suit me.

The least annoying option there seems to be trying to get another phonecardplus, though it's impossible from regular sources. Do any of you British readers have a phonecardplus that you would be willing to sell? Even if it has no credit left, so long as I can recharge it, then it would be of great use here. Naturally I would pay for the credit remaining on the card and for postage and packing. However, this relies on you having such a phonecardplus to sell. Perhaps you have a mobile phone and a phonecardplus already and find that your ownership of the former has made the latter obsolete. I am a sucker onto whom you can offload the card before your remaining credit on it expires. (Check the card for an expiry date - most of them are set to expire next April.)

The second least annoying option is to find some other prepaid phone credit card. Suggestions from British readers with experience in the field would be most welcome. My main priority is domestic UK calls from payphones, so a card with a good domestic UK call rate would be good and one which does so without applying a surcharge for calls from payphones would be better. Companies which do not apply call connection charges, administration fees or have credit expiry policies are preferred to companies which do. It's also a bonus if I would be able to use the same card to call to the UK from the USA at a reasonable rate.

Many thanks in advance for any suggestions!

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