Toll-free numbers are free, right? Well, that depends on which number youre calling  and from where.

Pay-as-you-go facilities might not necessarily be the most economical options, but they do enable you to cap your usage and monitor how much data or airtime you’re using.

Rather than receiving a surprise bill at the end of the month, you work within your budget. And when you’re mindful of what each call is costing, you notice any anomalies.

To figure out why his Telkom airtime wasn’t lasting long, Martizburger Kishore Dama noticed that the calls to his local municipality, the national lottery and something called “Hollywoodbets” were supposed to be gratis but were, in fact, charged for.

Pay-as-you-go services don’t come with that nice-to-have, itemised billing, so it took some enthusiasm to figure out his account. But then he discovered a few amounts – ranging from 70c for a local call to about R20 a call – had chipped away at his airtime. Sensing a conspiracy, Dama said he believed this was intentional and that someone was raking in money from supposedly toll-free numbers.

“If a million South Africans call toll-free numbers a month and pay 70c a time, that would be over R700 000,” Dama told me.

“I spoke to (a Telkom employee) and told her I was being charged for toll-free numbers.

"I insisted they credit my account for all the past and present toll-free numbers which I had dialled.

"She gave me a reference number and told me credit management would get back to me… Nobody got back to me.”

He then spoke to another Telkom employee, who promised the same, but no one got back to him either.

When did these promises to “get back to you”, “revert soonest” and “expedite matters” become so utterly meaningless? It’s a fob-off, often said in the hope that if you ignore a problem for long enough, it’ll go away. It’s almost a guarantee that when someone says they’ll get right back to you, they won’t. And when they do actually do as they say, it’s a surprise.

While working on a story about state grants, I recently discovered some “toll-free” numbers were being charged for. To test the veracity of pensioners’ claims that their calls to the toll-free number (0800 601011) were in actual fact charged for, I too called the number from a pay-as-you-go and discovered there was a charge. After Dama contacted me, I tried a few other numbers that I presumed would be toll-free, but weren’t.

Theoretically, toll-free numbers, when called from Telkom landlines, are not charged, but there’s a difference between toll-free, ShareCall and MaxiCall. Then there are the “interconnection fees” to consider between cellular providers.

ShareCall (preceded by 086) means if you call from a landline number, you pay only for a local call (63c) and it is routed to the main call centre; the 0800 numbers are toll-free from landlines but may incur cellphone airtime charges if you call from a cellphone; and the MaxiCall numbers are those created for ease of remembering.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, Telkom’s group executive communication and PR, then explained the difference: “Toll-free numbers are generally free to the caller if the call originates and terminates on the same network.

“Telkom’s toll-free service is branded FreeCall (080). We do not charge customers calling a FreeCall number if the recipient/called party is also on the Telkom network, which is generally the case.

“In this scenario, it is the recipient who carries the cost of the call. However, if the recipient is on another operator’s network, charges will apply. In these cases, there are additional interconnection charges that apply across networks.

“If calls are made to a Telkom FreeCall number from any other network, that operator may charge the caller.

“With reference to ShareCall (0860) and MaxiCall (0861) numbers, these are not toll-free services. Rather they allow customers to advertise a single (easy to remember) non-geographic number nationally as opposed to multiple local numbers in each region.

“These calls are charged to the caller and again, different rates may apply if the call has to be routed across different operator networks.”

Here’s the thing – provided you call from a Telkom line, an 0800 number should be free to you but the called party pays. The ShareCall numbers, those beginning with 0860, mean you pay only the cost of a local call. But with the MaxiCall numbers, the convenient 0861 numbers, the caller pays long-distance for the call.

Dama though insisted he called from his Telkom line to the SA National Lottery’s call centre – 0800 484822 (the player helpline which is supposedly toll-free, according to its site); Hollywood sports bets call centre 0800 076222 – also supposed to be toll-free; and the Pietermaritzburg local municipality’s call centre, 0800 001868.

It’s not as it seems though.

“In essence, none of the numbers mentioned were provided by Telkom and therefore we do not have any information with regard to the pricing connected to those numbers,” O’Sullivan told me. “The customer can call Icasa should they wish to query the source of those numbers.

“Because these toll-free numbers do not belong to Telkom, the charges by other companies are not known to us.”

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa grants the numbers to service providers, O’Sullivan says, which means just because a number is prefixed by 0800, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily toll-free.

“There are a lot of variables at play here. The first thing to note is that Icasa grants 0800 numbers to other service providers, not just Telkom.”

I asked Icasa why introduce the 0800 numbers, create a perception in the public mind that they are toll-free, and then allocate the numbers to other network providers who end up charging for them?

Paseka Maleka, Icasa’s manager of communications, responded: “080 toll-free services are provided by multiple individual electronic communications network service (I-ECNS) licencees, not only Telkom.

“The old regulatory framework mandated these licensees to make the service free for the caller if the call originates and terminates on the same network (the caller and the receiver being serviced by the same network) and optional for calls terminating on other networks. 

“This meant calls originating on one network and terminating on another were left to individual licencees to decide whether to charge for such calls or not. 

“With the recent conclusion of the Numbering Plan Regulations published on March 24, the revised 080 toll-free regulatory framework mandates licencees to make all calls to 080 numbers free of charge, irrespective of the originating network.

"This framework will become effective six months from the date of the publication (September 23) of the regulations.”

Then why is there a perception that the 080 numbers are toll-free?

Maleka explained: “Historically, Telkom used to be the only licencee providing 080 toll-free services and therefore calls were free to all callers as they were originating and terminating on the same Telkom network.

"Telkom has the largest allocation of 080 toll-free numbers compared to other licencees hence in the public eye, it appears as the only licencee providing 080 toll-free services.

“With the liberalisation of the telecommunications industry in 2009, many other licencees started providing 080 toll-free services. Therefore, the referred perception is actually a practice from the past when Telkom was the only provider of 080 toll-free services.”

So for now, numbers preceded by 080 are not necessarily toll-free, but from the end of September this year, new regulations will require that all such numbers will have to be free – whatever the originating network.

Dama though is not convinced – he says after reporting the calls were in fact being charged for, a strange thing happened: subsequent calls were no longer being charged for, and he has proof to that effect.

Strange indeed.


Wise up

Not just any number: MaxiCall (0861) is not toll-free. O’Sullivan says: “Under this option, callers are liable for the full cost of the call, when the MaxiCall number is linked to a Telkom landline. Calls to MaxiCall 0861 numbers will be charged at a flat rate, with a minimum charge of 63c a call. The standard call rate for national calls extending beyond 50km applies or 46c a minute during Standard Time and 23c a minute during Callmore Time. If the MaxiCall number is linked to another service provider, the SmartAccess rate to that provider will apply. This number varies based on times and geographies. I looked at four different non-Telkom service providers and the rates ranged from 57c a minute to 76c a minute, based on time and area.”

Share the burden: With 0860 ShareCall numbers, the cost of the call is shared equally between the caller and the owner of the number.

Free: With the 0800 FreeCall number, the owner of the number must pay the full cost, unless that 0800 number is linked to a non-Telkom number. Any call made to a FreeCall 080 number is free to the caller; regardless of its location in the country or where it is answered (this excludes calls from cellular phones and other operators). If the FreeCall number is linked to another service provider (again, a non-Telkom number), the SmartAccess rate to that provider will apply.

For details: See