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Industry Minister Tony Clement has taken heat from consumer groups and opposition politicians for scrapping an online cellphone rate calculator. ((CBC))

British cellphone customers using a regulator-sanctioned online rate calculator are saving an average of 42 per cent on their monthly bills, according to the company that runs it.

The tool, at Billmonitor.com, compares more than 1.3 million cellphone contract deals across the United Kingdom and computes users' existing bills to suggest the best deals to customers.

The site was launched by a trio of Cambridge and Oxford mathematicians last year and received official accreditation from Ofcom, the U.K.'s telecommunications regulator, in May after a five-month review process.

The scientists behind it were interested in the challenge presented by the complex wireless market, but also in the consumer benefits a successful product could bring.

"The inherent complexity of this market made it seem very interesting to us," said site founder Stelios Koundouros, who has a doctorate in mathematics from Cambridge. "What really cracked it for us is when we started getting those consumer bills and seeing the degree of savings people could get. The savings are staggering."

The tool stands in stark contrast to an effort by the Canadian government, which was scrapped over the summer. The government sank $1.4 million over three years into the project but abandoned it because it suffered from "technical limitations." Industry Canada said the tool was incapable of tracking the prices of data plans or bundle discounts and therefore could not provide accurate assessments of the market.

Consumer groups expected the website to launch in June, after receiving glowing reports from focus groups who had tested it.

Critics said the real reason behind the scrapping of the project was the lobbying of Industry Minister Tony Clement's office by the wireless industry. Cellphone companies did not want the tool to direct consumers toward lower-priced services, critics said.

Not that complicated a tool

Koundouros said he was surprised at Industry Canada's reasoning. Including data plans and bundle discounts in his tool, which cost about the same as the aborted Canadian project, was easy to do, he said.

"Data doesn't interact with minutes or texts, it's a separate consumption unit and a separate add-on or feature of the plan, in which case it's pretty simple. It's just a separate function in your code," he said. "If you've managed to create an engine that measures minutes and texts you should be able to do the same for data. I can't see how you can justify that that's not true."

"It was pretty surprising you could spend $1.4 million on a calculator and you can't do data ... at the end of the day, didn't you know you had to do data?"

Koundouros said his group had not been contacted for advice on building a tool by anyone from Canada.

The British site is free for customers to use. Koundouros's group makes money from referrals — if a customer uses it to sign up for a contract, the respective carrier pays Billmonitor.com a commission. The group is also planning to introduce a subscription service where customers will be able to input their bills each month, to see if they're still getting the best deals available.

A Canadian man, David Lemstra from Hamilton, has also built a functioning cellphone rate calculator, at Cellplanexpert.ca. Lemstra built the tool, which only measures minutes and features such as voice mail, but not data, over a two-year period for virtually no cost, he said.

Ofcom, Britain's version of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, also officially endorses two other online calculators, Simplify Digital and BroadbandChoices, which deal with high-speed internet and digital television. The regulator judges such tools based on four criteria: impartiality, accuracy, transparency and comprehensiveness.