Attack on Oftel's number changes
It was accused of failing to put customers first and of being too easily swayed by phone companies' claims of technical difficulties with the existing numbers.
MPs said that Oftel should review the phone numbering scheme "so that in future the scheme puts customers' interests first". Plans to change phone numbers are due to be implemented in July.
Customers in Cardiff, Coventry, London, Portsmouth, Southampton and Northern Ireland will have to change their numbers under the scheme.
The overhaul comes just four years after Phoneday, when numbers across the UK where altered by adding an extra 1 into every area code.Such changes are inconvenient for residential users and hit businesses with extra costs for publicising their new numbers.
The report by the Trade and Industry select committee said that Oftel had failed to consider alternatives to another up-heaval and did not ask customers for their views. "We recommend that when Oftel next proposes changes to geographic codes, residential and business customers in each of the areas affected are directly consulted," the report said.
Businesses that now use the freephone 0800 system are furious about the new system, which will see all such numbers changed.
Many companies have spent thousands of pounds promoting their easy-to- remember numbers, which will have to changed. The cost to business of the swap has been estimated at pounds 500m. The committee said it was "totally unconvinced" by Oftel's arguments for the need to change freephone numbers.
It added that it was left with the impression that freephone changes were a "smokescreen" to allow Oftel to take control of the most valuable numbers, which it could then auction to companies.
Oftel's director-general, David Edmonds, responded firmly to this last accusation, arguing that Oftel's primary aim was to ensure sufficient capacity on the telephone network. Mr Edmonds also said the changes to area codes were essential.
"If these code changes do not take place as planned, London and perhaps other cities will run out of telephone number capacity by summer 2000. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that significant change can or should be made to what is now known as The Big Number campaign."
On 0800 numbers, Oftel said it had held discussion with the Freephone Users Group and would look at new suggestions, which could allow some freephone users to continue to use their existing numbers.
The Freephone Users Group itself praised the MPs' report. Its chairman, John Chaplin, said: "We have waged a six-month campaign to make Oftel see sense. This report must help Oftel realise that its ideas were and always have been flawed.
"We should now draw a line under this unfortunate episode and move forward with Oftel to achieve a solution that benefits business, the consumer, network operators and the UK as a whole."
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