Directory inquiries debacle sparks investigation by telecoms watchdog

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The Independent Online

The new telecoms and media regulator Ofcom is to investigate the deregulated directory inquiries market amid concerns that the service still has too many "rough edges".

The watchdog is concerned that, almost five months since the abolition of the 192 monopoly, some of the multitude of replacements are still guilty of providing a poor deal.

As part of the group's annual plan published yesterday, it has undertaken to investigate - and eventually expose - poor service and Byzantine pricing structures among the new 118 providers. Investigators are to pose as "mystery shoppers" and their findings may be used to compile a league table of providers to help consumers judge best value for money.

Depending on its findings, Ofcom, which replaced Oftel last month, could recommend the withdrawal of licences as the ultimate sanction.

Stephen Carter, Ofcom's chief executive, said: "The first task is some fairly intensive research. Are price comparisons accessible to the consumer? Are there meaningful comparisons on quality of service? Is the level of service improving or stalled? We want to get informed consumers benefiting from competition, driving up service standards and keeping prices down, for the benefit of all users."

The 192 service was switched off last August to open up the directory inquiries market to new competition amid concerns the BT monopoly had become too expensive.

The rates charged by the new services, including six for international directory inquiries, range from 30p for a single search to over 60p depending on how long the caller is on the phone. The number of providers has fallen from about 35 in August in a repeat of the trend after the deregulation in other countries.

Polls conducted soon after the switchover found that customers were confused about the changes. The top two numbers people could remember were the much advertised 118 118 and BT's own new number 118 500, according to research.

A report by Oftel last November found that four out of every 10 callers to the new 118 directory inquiry services received an inaccurate response to their query.