The Thing Is: 118 - Call costs to rise in enquiries 'disgrace'

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The Independent Online

It was supposed to introduce genuine competition, greater consumer choice and cheaper phone bills. But with just one week to go before the old BT 192 directory enquiries service is replaced by 14 new numbers with the 118 prefix, there is evidence that this new free market will be anything but.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has found that some cable companies are blocking calls to 118 numbers - an act branded "disgraceful" by critics. And, rather than driving down prices, the cost of dialling directory enquiries could, in some cases, double.

The UK directory enquiries market is huge. The telecoms regulator, Oftel, estimates that around 700 million calls are made to directory enquiries every year. No wonder, then, that the deregulation of 192 has attracted companies such as Centrica, Yell and BT, as well as private firms Conduit and Infonxx.

BT, the dominant telephone operator, is required by Oftel to connect calls to any 118 operator. But a loophole in the law means that cable companies can refuse to connect calls to certain 118 numbers.

Telewest and NTL have exploited this. Next Sunday Telewest customers will only be able to access two numbers: 118 118, operated by US company Infonxx, noted for its innovative "runners" advertis- ing campaign; and Telewest's own enquiries number. Telewest claims to be negotiating deals with other 118 companies, but some claim that it is demanding unrealistic terms.

Liam Young, chief executive of the Dublin-based Conduit, which operates 11 88 88, said: "This is clearly an anti-competitive practice and a restraint to trade. It is not in the interest of customers and not in the interests of the market. With one week to go before 192 is switched off, Telewest appears to be engaging in this disgraceful behaviour."

A Telewest spokeswoman denied that the company was "deliberately blocking services" , and added that "it takes time to get contracts in place with all of the [118] operators".

NTL has also come under fire. It has signed deals with Infonxx and Conduit, and claims to have "sent out terms to all the other operators". But one 118 operator, who asked to remain anonymous, said that NTL's proposed revenue-sharing arrangement would make it "unprofitable" to do a deal with the cable company.

Ian El-Mokadem, managing director of Centrica Telecoms, which operates One.Tel's 118 111 service, said: "The cable companies are taking advantage of customers by effectively trapping them and making them pay over the odds. This is disgraceful."

BT, which is continuing its enquiries service with its new number 118 500, believes that Oftel is to blame. "NTL and Telewest are restricting access. Oftel has failed to think through the practical implementation. It should have put a standard framework in place for all telecoms operators," said Paul Elliott, chief executive of BT Directories.

Oftel said it was "aware of the issue", but that it was unable to act as it only has the power to force BT to offer access to all 118 numbers.

Oftel had claimed that the introduction of competition in the directory enquiries market would drive down prices. But mobile phone users will soon find it more expensive to dial a 118 number.

For example, a T-Mobile customer dialling 192 today will pay 50p a minute. Next Sunday, the charge will be 65p to dial the service run by BT, One.Tel and Conduit, and 75p for Infonxx's service.

T-Mobile is not alone. Other mobile companies are issuing a complex set of directory enquiries tariffs, and most are more expensive than 192 is today. The companies offered different reasons for the rises. T-Mobile said that the higher charges were set by the new 118 operators.

Orange, which will charge some pay-as-you-go customers up to £1 a minute to access a 118 service, said: "The question of confusion among customers should really be posted to Oftel."

But an Oftel spokeswoman said: "If mobile operators set a high retail price, that is their commercial decision."