No one answers telephone call for help

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BRITAIN'S telephone network is heading serenely towards a period of chaos because the telecoms authorities are gripped by a paroxysm of buck- passing. If they do not get their act together soon, billions of pounds will be wasted and the nation will fall silent - yet no one will be responsible.

The problem is that none of the authorities wants anything to do with a change in national telephone codes, due to take place in 1995.

The code change, costing consumers about pounds 3.25bn, will add millions of new numbers to Britain's increasingly clogged telephone network. David Harrington, director-general of the Telecommunications Managers Association, said: 'This is a national change which has the potential for causing chaos throughout industry and commerce. It needs to be managed down to the finest detail.'

But as things stand, it probably won't be.

The Department of Tradeand Industry says the code change is a matter for the watchdog, Oftel, and the industry. Oftel, however, says that it is up to the network operators though it will support their efforts. This is in spite of Oftel's plans to take over from BT the control and allocation of telephone numbers from next year.

Meanwhile, BT says that as a private company, it is not responsible for any mess caused by a nationwide change of area codes.

From April 1995, all numbers will have a '1' inserted after the initial zero in the area code. Thus numbers in London will begin '0171' or '0181' and the code for Derby will be 01332 instead of 0332.

The change will require wholesale reprogramming of telephoneequipment - public and private - so that it recognises the new numbers and can route calls accordingly.

A source at BT said: 'This (change) is happening because Oftel wanted to do it.' But the regulator maintains that while it approved proposals for a code change, the plans were put forward by BT and Mercury. 'It is Oftel's firm view that each operator has direct responsibility for implementing the code change on its network and for informing customers of the change.'

The TMA, Telephone Users Association and others including BT and Mercury have formed an ad hoc committee to try to prepare for the code change. They have urged Oftel to take overall responsibility, but admit that the watchdog has neither the resources nor the legal requirement to do so.

Mr Harrington noted that the growing number of telephone network operators will make it even harder to co-ordinate the change without a single body taking the reins.

Unfortunately, no one seems willing to answer the call.