/ Technology

Does the UK’s Speaking Clock cost too much?

Mobile phone next to coins and credit card

Calling the 123 Speaking Clock now costs at least 39p. It’s probably not something you’re too concerned about, until you spot the phone number mysteriously appearing on your landline phone bill.

The cost of calling BT’s 79-year-old Speaking Clock has climbed steadily in recent years and costs at least five times more than other countries that offer a similar service.

Speaking clock chargesIn 2003, the 10p charge for the Speaking Clock was close to the national rate, but it doubled to 20p in 2004 and now costs 39-50p depending on your phone provider.

Calling the clock in the Netherlands costs just 7p, Iceland’s ‘Klukken’ is around 12p, Ireland and Germany cost 14p, and it’s free in Chile. Only France’s 82-year old ‘L’horloge parlante’ is more expensive, at 56p.

Mystery 123 phone calls

Last year, we reported on landline owners who had been charged for mystery calls and said that engineers testing lines could be the cause. And we’ve had 150 comments about this here on Which? Convo, including from Lindsey:

‘Yep, just looked at my bill and there’s a call to 123 charging me 36p. Funny that I don’t even have my house phone plugged in. To top it off there was an engineer in my street the day of the call! Annoyed.’

Openreach said it was unaware of any issues but later apologised to customers and told engineers not to make calls on customer lines or boxes.

Despite this, you’ve told us it’s still an issue – but phone providers don’t always refund the charges and won’t block the 123 number. Yet we had no joy when we asked BT to consider making calls free, or cheaper, to help.

Top 123 tips

1. Save money, check the time online.
2. Check your bill for 123 calls – report any to your provider.
3. Blocking calls – phones featuring call barring can block specific numbers for outgoing and incoming calls.

Have you noticed any mystery 123 speaking clock calls on your phone bill?

Comments
Profile photo of John Ward
Member

I think I’ll ring the Netherlands next time I want to know the time [unless there’s a handy policeman passing].

I’d be interested to know how many calls are made to the UK speaking clock these days given that we all have access to an accurate time check on so many devices.

Actually the time doesn’t bother me – it’s the date and day of the week I lose track of.

Member

“Yet we had no joy when we asked BT to consider making calls free, or cheaper, to help.”

Cheaper is no help when someone is making unauthorised calls to that number. Indeed, it might make it harder to get a refund. Additionally, engineers who make these calls are less likely to stop if they know the impact is only a few pence each time.

“Blocking calls – phones featuring call barring can block specific numbers for outgoing and incoming calls.”

Blocking numbers being dialled from your own handset is of no use in stopping engineers using their own handset to call these numbers when testing the line.

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Member

You are conflating two separate issues: the cost of the speaking clock and engineers using it to test phone lines. It’s difficult to imagine a circumstance where you’d want to call the speaking clock these days, it must be a very niche thing to do, the cost is scarcely relevant to all but a very few. If you or anyone else wants to test the line they can simply call 1471.

Member
Phil says:
29 August 2015

Network Rail requires signal boxes and stations to check their clocks once a day. Unless the clocks are radio controlled (does anyone still call them Rugby Clocks?) the Speaking Clock is the preferred method.

Profile photo of NFH
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The Speaking Clock is a wasteful method for National Rail to prefer. They could use an NTP (Network Time Protocol) server via a mobile device, which costs nothing except for a negligible amount of mobile data traffic.

Member
Phil says:
29 August 2015

Except the use of mobile devices is prohibited in signal boxes.

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As I said, it’s a very niche thing to do. I doubt the impact on Network Rail’s budget is cause for concern.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Radio-controlled clocks are not expensive and are now quite old technology, so might fit in well with our railways.

Profile photo of John Ward
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I’ve yet to see a railway ticket office or signal box that hasn’t got a computer in it. The signaller could tune into the Greenwich time signal on the radio – or is that also banned in a signal box? Where I live they’re getting rid of all the signal boxes so the demand for the speaking clock will fall even further.

Despite all the marvels of digital technology there are two electronic clocks on adjacent platforms at Norwich station that are one second apart but it doesn’t matter – the trains pay no attention to the times displayed.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

Bong ! Intrigued by this, I did a bit of digging and found that the National Physical Laboratory provides accurate time-keeping from a site in Cumbria so “Rugby Clocks” is no longer the correct description for railway clocks. It derived from the time when the Post Office broadcast the Greenwich Time Signal worldwide from its radio station at Rugby.

Bong ! The current time signal is transmitted from Anthorn Radio Station in Cumbria and is available 24 hours a day across the whole of the UK and beyond. The signal’s carrier frequency is maintained at a set level controlled by caesium atomic clocks at the radio station. The broadcast signal is monitored against the national time standard at the NPL site in Teddington and corrected when necessary.

Bong ! Even the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster has been having time-keeping difficulties recently and had to be adjusted using a set of old pennies placed on part of the mechanism.

Profile photo of NFH
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The Speaking Clock is one of several telephone-based services that have become redundant as a result of the availability of free alternatives. Other examples include directory enquiries.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

If you are blind then the speaking clock and directory enquiries may still have their uses.

These services are redundant when no-one is still using them.

Profile photo of alfa
Member

You can buy speaking clocks that automatically adjust to the right time so the blind do not need to rely on the Speaking Clock.

According to a 4 year old BBC report, peak times for the Speaking Clock are New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Day and just before 5 pm when call centre staff don’t want a long call to deal with.

123 is probably the number young children are likely to dial most when playing with a telephone so a lucrative source of income.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

A friend’s father had a speaking clock, which I repaired after he had knocked it off his bedside table too many times. When it was not working, he used the Speaking Clock or asked the staff in his care home to tell him the time.

Profile photo of NFH
Member

Alfa is right. Blind people are more likely to buy their own speaking clock for a one-off charge rather than rely upon an expensive pay-as-you-use service.

It’s interesting that call centre staff call the speaking clock at the end of their shifts in order to prevent further incoming calls. Why don’t call centres block 123 in order to prevent this wasteful use of their resources?

Wavechange, I disagree that these services are redundant only when no-one is still using them. Naïve consumers will spend money on redundant services whereas sophisticated consumers will not.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

Assuming the Speaking Clock service has to pay for itself the diminishing number of users will eventually make it prohibitively expensive. It used to carry advertising [e.g “The time sponsored by Acurist …”] but now it just says “The time from BT will be . . .”. This is delivered in perfect elocution by a lady named Sara from Brighton. Que sera, sera.

Profile photo of wavechange
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NFH – I gave an example of a (nearly) blind person who did buy a speaking clock but the technology failed him.

There is a good case for organisations to block access to the speaking clock. Searching for ‘Council workers spend £2,500 phoning speaking clock’ provides an example of how money is wasted. Perhaps calling the Speaking Clock should be blocked by default and I would suggest the same for 09 numbers.

Should we spend money on educating the ‘naive consumers’ how to save money or helping the ‘sophisticated consumers’ understand that there are good reasons why we don’t all do things in the same way? Regarding the Speaking Clock, all that’s needed is to get one company to stop being greedy.

Profile photo of DerekP
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NFL wrote:

“Naïve consumers will spend money on redundant services whereas sophisticated consumers will not.”

But surely both customer choice and the entreprenurial development of new businesses and services require that individuals can decide for themselves on what is and what is not “redundant”?

Profile photo of John Ward
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Yes, and the price lubricates the decision-making mechanism.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
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It’s kind of cute that whilst the TTIP negotiations are being carried out in Brussel that will have far reaching effects on consumers in the EU we have not a murmur from the largest consumer body in the UK.

The union of European consumer bodies has plenty to say [BUEC] but not Which?.

No let us have a conversation on paying 39p for the time. With apologies to Elisa it is not your fault.

Perhaps Patrick Steen can tell us why TTIP and th epotential ramifications has not featured here.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I agree. Much of what we are discussing could be rather insignificant compared with the consequences of TTIP for the consumer.

Profile photo of John Ward
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Perhaps there’s not much real appetite among the Which? fellowship for a Conversation about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Perhaps it’s too political, or could lead to a politicised polemic. Perhaps a mini-poll should be posted in the first instance.

Profile photo of wavechange
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At the third stroke you will be reminded to get back on topic, albeit a relatively unimportant one.

That will be 39p, please.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
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Hmmm They could survey the 40,000 Connect members . The drawback may be that it is a well-kept secret.

There is an article just out from the Huffington Post regarding Du Pont poisoning on a large scale with C8 over a matter of decades. One of the interesting points was that for checking on chemicals it was decided that some 80,000 invented concoctions would be grandfathered. The US political system can be astonishingly pragmatic. Also the supervisory officials where they ajudicate and then go to work for Dupont.

Grandfathering – that is a quaint way of saying no need to test because it was invented some time ago. How different from the EU stance that positive approval be required.

” The U.S. Trade Representative has already targeted REACH[iii], Europe’s chemicals regulation program. The 2013 USTR report on Technical Barriers to Trade identifies many provisions of the REACH system as trade barriers.[iv] The United States also raised objections to REACH at the time the program was developed[v], as well as more recently in the World Trade Organization Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade[vi] and in other fora. Advocates for U.S. companies argue that registration, data gathering, and notification requirements under REACH impose higher costs on chemical products imported into the E.U., and detailed analyses have been prepared that, in effect, lay out the argument for why major elements of REACH are illegal trade barriers under international trade law.[vii] –

foe.org/news/archives/2013-06-sinister-partners-transatlantic-trade-agreement–tox#sthash.0jT2xFBu.dpuf

Profile photo of John Ward
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Sorry Diesel, but as a Which? Connect participant it is not the kind of survey I would wish to give my time to. I don’t know enough about the subject to start with and don’t feel inclined to get my head around it either. In fact my eyes glaze over just looking at the extracts you have posted. I enjoy surveys where consumers’ existing knowledge and experience are sought to add depth and breadth to testing and research, and where the outcomes of the survey can be assimilated readily. The TTIP debate might be incredibly important but I feel it’s best left to experts. Such a complex issue would take a great deal of preparation for a meaningful survey. I would prefer Which? to devote its limited resources to things that we can all understand and benefit from in the here and now.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
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JW – “The TTIP debate might be incredibly important but I feel it’s best left to experts. ”

I believe I am an expert consumer : )

Yes it was not friendly of me to jump to the heavy stuff. In one sense though your reaction does reveal the limited information that the general media are putting out and the general publcs lack of knowledge and subsequent disinclination to engage.

You are quite correct that surveying Connect people would probably just illustrate the lack of knowledge that exists. Perhaps the simple facts as outlined in the Huff Post article will be a more compelling story that people can relate to.

I post a short extract

” During the Happy Pan rollout, DuPont’s chief toxicologist, Dorothy Hood, cautioned in a memo to executives that the substance should be “handled with extreme care.” She explained that a new study had found enlarged livers in rats and rabbits exposed to C8, which suggested the chemical was toxic. But DuPont continued to market Teflon and related products, which would burgeon into a billion-dollar-a-year business for the company.

By the early 1970s, Congress was once again debating how to regulate the chemicals that now formed the fabric of American domestic life. Both houses drafted legislation that would empower the Environmental Protection Agency to study the health and environmental effects of chemicals and regulate their use. But the industry unleashed another lobbying blitz. Under the final version of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, existing chemicals were again grandfathered in. Manufacturers did have to inform the EPA when they introduced new chemicals—but no testing was required. The resulting regulatory regime, which exists to this day, is remarkably laissez-faire. Only a handful of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market have ever been tested for safety—meaning that we are all, in effect, guinea pigs in a vast, haphazard chemistry experiment.

3: The Factory
Sue Bailey had just gotten pregnant with her third child when she was transferred to the Teflon division of Washington Works. There, she said, she channeled C8 waste into on-site pits using a contraption that looked like a bicycle pump. For the rest of her pregnancy, she suffered from crippling anxiety. “I knew in my gut that something was really wrong,” she says.
When Bailey gave birth in January 1981, the baby had only half a nose and a ragged eyelid that gaped down to the middle of his cheek. The doctors warned that he might not live until morning. Bailey was so shell-shocked that she could hardly bear to hold him. “I was terrified that he would die in my arms,” she told me. ”

Perhaps the Huffington Post article should be read so that the people realise what is at stake. The negotiations are in secret – well certainly on the EU side where MEP’s have restricted access to what is happening. Apparently the hundreds of lobbyists involved are better informed.

Simple fact is the US has a load of chemicals that have never been properly tested and the EU has been working through all chemicals that are used in the EU. As a consumer which model do you prefer?

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
Member

Hi all, thanks for your comments on TTIP. We want the negotiations to be as open and transparent as possible, which is why we and other European consumer orgs have been pressing the UK government, the European Commission and the European Parliament to ensure that the consumer voice is heard. BEUC is directly influencing these discussions, and we’re a member, as you’ve mentioned.

Just a reminder, we don’t have many rules on Which? Convo, but one of the most important is to keep conversations on topic. It’s unfair to other users to derail a conversation, since it can confuse and could make them feel like they aren’t welcome. If you ever want to talk to us about something, please ping us an email: https://conversation.which.co.uk/contact-us/ Thanks all, hope you had a lovely bank holiday weekend.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
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Sorry Patrick. I got carried away by the mismatch. The link for those interested is

http://www.beuc.eu/general/tradettip

Profile photo of duncan lucas
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Dont tell me I am agreeing with some of the posters here ,that will be a first. But I agree why is WHICH not talking about TTIP ? Dont say “political ” that is a “we dont want to know ” excuse as this will effect dramatically ALL aspect of UK consumer use of products -the NHS-ban on generic products- GMO-forced on the population and so on. If WHICH does not grasp this then what moral right has it to complain once its implemented ?? .This is a test for where WHICH,s loyalties lie -with the 99 % OR with Big Business its no good complaining once its in force thats too late and you will be sued by BB for trying to obstruct their massive profits as will governments if they try for social help over BB.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
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One might loo at the Which? subscribers and shareholders forum however the roll-out has been glacial and I think only 35 different people had posted there by May. I was not even told it existed until late February 2015 by another member.

BTW I will be mentioning the two new frail resolutions to the Articles tomorrow there. Just to note that the shareholders – that is generally the old folk who joined in the early years are now dying out and the replacement rate with subscribers becoming members is roughly one tenth of the attrition rate. Bottom line there are now around 7,000 shareholders who can vote and take the Trustees to task.

Despite the glossiness of the presentation last year the matter of well over £10m written off in failed commercial ventures, and the lack of interest in AllTrials and TTIP lead one to wonder what is going on in the leading consumer body in Europe.

BUEC seems positively a ray of light in involvement.

Profile photo of duncan lucas
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AS regards the speaking clock -yes in my day it was used by engineers to “test ” a line (just checks for noise etc NOT the condition of line ) BUT it didnt cost any money then. Now 2015 repair engineers ,especially on fibre/copper combinations have a £2500 “super” digital tester (dont lose it or your fired ) this tests all faults without any need to dial up 123 in any case engineers carry digital equipment showing the time anyway.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

So can you shed any light on why so many people are having their telephone lines tapped to test circuits and being charged?

If we’re going back to ancient times, telephone engineers had a set of internal test numbers for proving circuits that did not generate a charge.

I am quite suspicious about the prevalence of this. Indeed I wonder if it is targetted at those customers who are on paperless billing. I am sure a lot of people on paperless billing have given up checking their bills every month – because it’s not exactly straightforward logging on and clicking through several screens – and this is well known, so the chances of the 123 calls being spotted and challenged are quite small. Why bother ringing a free line when you can generate some revenue for the company by ringing the Speaking Clock?

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Member

John in my day you phoned the control and they tested the line if you were up a pole you could test it yourself from the exchange test board (now obsolete ) for distance and fault condition (earth HLI etc ) or you used your analogue meter to test for a fault . Gone are those days My phone went noisy and HH5 cut out and in the £2500 test meter said it was 18 meters from the Main socket (only one in house direct cat4e to joint this wasted the engineers time as it proved to be complete non-sense and after a comprehensive check via the O/H UG joint at pole DP it turned out it was a GR dis -high resistance dis – due to one leg at the CAB not being crimped properly .The term HR dis is no longer used seemingly . IF I used my AVO MK 5 I could have found the fault much quicker I dont blame the engineer he did a great job but BT /outreach must re-evaluate its test equipment . If many people complain of 123 calls it only leaves contract workers not BT employees who could do that while working on cables I have BT blocked all premium calls from my phone because of a BT phone -call-blocker phoning premium numbers itself I returned the phone do you remember me posting this previously? but that doesnt block =123 maybe they are now using that number as a means of raising money but it would be mean spirited of them to do that for a massive billion $$$ company . I religiously check my phone bill nearly every day thats why I found out a BT phone was ripping me off !!

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

Forgive me if I didn’t understand most of what you wrote but I thank you for your explanation and suggesting that contract workers rather than Openreach employees might be misusing customer’s lines by testing on a chargeable service.

I think Which? needs to get this issue on the agenda of some top executives at BT and ultimately Ofcom. It hasn’t affected me but there are so many people reporting it on this site alone, and raising it with BT customer services [who, it seems, are in denial mode], that it deserves to be dealt with as a serious consumer complaint.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I don’t recall seeing any calls to the Speaking Clock on my bills. Nowadays it would be easy because I just look at the few calls that are not covered by the tariff.

If our telephone system had still been in private ownership we could have made a Freedom of Information request to uncover information that could help understand the problem of mystery calls. I would like to see companies included in such requests.

I’m not surprised that you can’t follow Duncan’s post. I assume that he is referring to an Avo Model 8, Mk5 but that’s just a guess.

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Member

I noticed =AVATAR above my name could WHICH give me the legal aspect of this as GRAVATAR the company collects email info from all sites using its service . While perceived knowledge says this is “hidden ” in the PRC and US/UK the “authorities ” can ask for your info and have done its a case of an avatar is followed round the web and logged . IN Sweden recently 45 % of the same were hacked and email addresses revealed to the hackers.

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Member

Thanks to a tracking app on my system I have found you ARE using the GRAVITAR service I blocked it .

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

This articl explains the problem and gives a worked example:
http://www.developer.it/post/gravatars-why-publishing-your-email-s-hash-is-not-a-good-idea

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Member

Thank you dieseltaylor especially the last sentence ,I accept that . I got my info from Meta Stack Exchange in a comment from a US Fortune 100 company internet security lawyer he ends by saying =Quote=-“AS a lawyer,I strongly urge all blog authors and users who are concerned about their privacy to avoid Gravitar -end quote its a comment on that website by AL 2009-02-18–00:03:55 he doesnt pull punches .

Member
christine tattersall says:
25 November 2016

My father racked up a bill of 579.00 post office cannot block this number please help!!

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

Can you give us some more information please, Christine, so that someone with knowledge in this area can try to help you? It would be useful to know how the calls are being charged to your father’s bill. Are the calls for the speaking clock or for some other service [like a directory enquiry service, or a special service routed overseas]. Which company is the telecom service provider? – if it’s BT [you mentioned the Post Office] they are usually good at helping vulnerable people who have had such problems, and although they will not always waive the charges as it depends on the circumstances, they can usually stop further costs arising by technical alterations to the line, or as a last resort a change of telephone number.