Network: We're talking telephone numbers - again

Phoneday was only three years ago, but more phone number changes are imminent. By Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Culture
IF IT looks as if we have been here before, it is because we have, and less than four years ago. In under a year's time, millions of UK telephone numbers will change again.

The event is the National Code and Number Change. The last time the numbering system underwent such a far-reaching overhaul was in 1995, on so-called Phoneday. Then, all ordinary phone numbers added an extra "1" to their codes - and the citizens of Bristol, Sheffield, Leeds, Leicester and Nottingham got completely new codes.

This time, people in London, Cardiff, Belfast, Portsmouth and Coventry will have to change; their new numbers will start with 02. For Londoners it will be the third new set of numbers in just over a decade.

Nor is that the whole story. Non-geographic numbers, including mobile phones, personal numbers and pagers, will change. So will some freephone numbers and most local-rate national and premium-rate numbers. The exceptions are numbers issued since July last year, which already use the new codes.

The importance of the changes cannot be overestimated. Apart from millions of mobile phone and pager users, and people living in areas with new numbers, the change will affect anyone who holds contact databases or customer lists. It will affect companies that use free, reduced or national-rate numbers for sales or technical support - as many do in the computer industry.

It will affect Internet service providers, which use local-rate numbers to connect customers who dial in with modems. Organisations that have automatic computer links between offices which rely on modems or the ISDN network will also be affected, as will systems that use a caller's number to check their identity - for example, when remote staff log on to an office computer. It will even affect fax software.

The reason is simple enough: we are running out of phone numbers. The telecommunications regulator Oftel realised some time ago that some parts of the country, especially London, needed more numbers. The change will give 64 million numbers for London alone. An additional set of numbers, starting with 03, is reserved for future use should demand continue to grow.

At the same time, Oftel decided to take the opportunity to change non- geographic numbers. In a move welcomed by consumer groups, the regulator placed "find me anywhere" numbers - mobiles, pagers, personal numbers - in a category starting with 07. Special rate numbers - free, local and national - will start with 08, and premium rate numbers, with 09. Ordinary users will have a much better idea of the sort of call, and therefore the cost, before they dial. The same cannot be said of the existing system.

The problems with the old numbering system were not news to the authorities. The key question is why the changes were not carried out on Phoneday, thereby saving considerable inconvenience and cost. The National Number Change office defends the decision, saying it would have caused too much confusion. "There was the need to establish the area codes beginning with 01," explains Andrew Lawford, a spokesman. "That freed up the other ranges. The second thing was the complexity of the message. If we had tried to migrate people to a whole range of different numbers, it would have been completely different."

Oftel's documents show that the number of misdialled calls was a factor in the decision. For Phoneday, the national network could cope with around 15 per cent of misdialled calls. The figure now is even lower. Too many wrong numbers would cause the system to seize up.

Demand for phone numbers comes from competition between operators, and because of growth in technology - mobiles, computer-telephone integration and the Internet. The old number system, designed long before the computer was invented, was never going to cope.

"It's a legacy of the previous structure," explains Andrew Lawford. "We are moving to a much more homogeneous system where everyone will have an eight-digit number, and a three-digit code."

Not everyone welcomes the prospect of longer numbers. The alternative, adopted in the US, is to overlay new numbers in busy areas. Large US cities can have more than one dialling code. Here, Oftel found people wanted to keep local dialling.

The changes will be phased in over the next two years; some numbers, such as local-rate calls, could last somewhat longer. Even so, people who depend on the phone are being advised to start working on the changes as soon as possible.

"Consumers and businesses will be affected: anyone who uses the phone," cautions Steve Thorpe, member services manager at the Telephone Users Association. Smaller businesses face the greatest problems, as they do not have dedicated engineers to manage their systems. A smooth transition will depend on businesses publicising the changes, and giving help to their customers. Computer users who start looking at changes now should not lose out, but, as Steve Thorpe predicts, there could be more changes to come: "I don't honestly think this will be the end of it."