Dial 01 for confusion

How did Oftel decide on the new phone codes to be introduced in April, and why are they so unpopular? Laurence Blackall reports

Last week started badly for Oftel. Poor Arthur Orbell, the man in charge of the National Code Change, as Phoneday is formally known, was probably still in his pyjamas when he was mugged by James Naughtie of Radio 4's Today programme. Suddenly, it seemed, after months of apathy about the impending disruption to the telephone numbering system, everyone cared.

By Monday, lunchtime Radio 2's Jimmy Young show had included an interview with Richard Cox, one of the best informed and most articulate critics of the proposed changes; and by the time Mr Orbell would normally have been deciding which pyjamas to wear, Newsnight had unleashed Jeremy Paxman on to Don Cruickshank, Oftel's director-general.

So what had happened suddenly to create all this interest? The penny had dropped. The realisation had dawned that Phoneday was not a one-shot solution to a number shortage, but the first in a series of changes. And changes that no one had been told about.

But if Monday's outcry was the sound of righteous indignation, the air on Tuesday was filled with the whirring of Oftel's synchronised back-pedalling. Mr Cruickshank put out a statement acknowledging "public concern" about the confusion and implying that no new changes would be made without consultation.

So what is going to happen on Phoneday - 16 April - and why? All area codes will now be prefixed with the numbers 01 and some cities will get new codes. This does not create more numbers, but it does mean that when we do run out, we can start using other prefixes, such as 02 and 03.

These will be used only for new numbers, which means you might have to dial a complete city code to ring your next-door neighbour, or even your own second line. In Reading, which is short of numbers, you might have one phone with an 01734 code and one with 0233. Ashford, 0233 now, will of course be 01233.

What really got up people's noses last Monday was the realisation that this had been all pretty much decided but we the public had not been told. However, changes of some sort are inevitable because the country is running short of area codes, and some of the existing codes are low on numbers.

To find out whose fault that is, we have to go back 37 years. In 1958, a new acronym entered our language: STD or subscriber trunk dialling. The introduction of STD meant that over time, everyone in the United Kingdom was able to dial long-distance numbers rather than go through an operator. To enable them to do that, area codes had to be allocated; these were determined by the General Post Office, which ran the telephone system.

Mindful of the fact that telephone dials had letters as well as numbers, these new codes were a strange combination of both. Under this system, Cardiff, for example, was CA2 (0222) and Cambridge became CA3 (0223).

That explains the similarity in codes between Brighton and Bristol and between Maidenhead, Maidstone and Maldon. It was not a bad way to get subscribers in the habit of dialling long-distance numbers for themselves, and it was about all that could have been done with the technology of the day.

The STD system divided the country into 638 charge groups, primarily for the purpose of determining tariffs, and the numbers were evenly spread across these groups. However, this approach did not cater for the enormous variation in population density between, say, rural North Wales or the Scottish Highlands and a city like Reading. While this was not an issue at the time, it has resulted now in the numbers in some area codes being as little as 3 per cent utilised, while in certain cities, they are almost exhausted.

As the technology evolved and the capacity of exchanges increased, British Telecom sensibly started to re-allocate some of the redundant capacity in a process called progressive code recovery. The pressure to do this stemmed primarily from the need to provide codes for other services. The 0800 free-phone prefix was formerly the code for Tongue in Scotland. Durham's 0385 code now belongs to Vodafone (Durham is now subsumed into Newcastle's 091), while the Orange 0973 prefix once indicated a West Riding number.

Proponents of code recovery point out that there are millions of available numbers out there that could, with minimal disruption and expense, be allocated to those regions and services which need them. Richard Cox, himself an advocate of this approach, estimates that the final bill for the national code change will exceed £3bn. Using code recovery adequate capacity could have been provided for a tiny fraction of that sum, he says.

Expense aside, there are certain attractions of the proposed regional identities that will be provided by the 02 numbering scheme. If it were to be a full- scale replacement for our existing arrangement, and there were no further changes, it might attract more widespread support. But the fact that the old and new numbers will run side by side makes it a particularly ugly and confusing solution.

Who decided on all this? Step forward Mr Orbell. And who apart from Oftel wanted this solution? Hardly anybody, it seems, apart from the consultants Ovum, who advised on the code change.

There is a consultative mechanism - in theory. Oftel has a Telephone Numbering and Addressing Board (TNAB). Try to pin down anyone from TNAB, though, and it turns out that it does not meet any more. With a regulator that does not consult business or the consumer, and an advisory board that does not meet, it is hardly surprising that the proposed code change is so unpopular.

Some other countries have the same problem, but you do not have to look far for better solutions. France, for example, implemented an elegant one in the early Eighties by adopting an eight-digit numbering system, and dividing the country into two zones, Paris and the rest. To ease the pressure on numbers and to future-proof their system, they are now adding three more regional area codes. Since the eight-digit numbering system gives a theoretical 100 million numbers per area code, the French appear to have cracked the problem.

The United States' model of three-digit area codes represents another route. While Mr Orbell is quick to point out the shortcomings of the US approach to numbering, cynics remain unimpressed. They fail to understand why a scheme that works for a population of almost 260 million will not work for a UK population of less than 60 million.

We are paying the price for not grasping the nettle in the Eighties. That is when we should have been implementing a system that provided adequate number capacity for the next century.

J A R G O N B U S T E R

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Virtual In the hi-tech world, anything that exists only in computerised form.

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