Phone users face another upheaval

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Oftel, the telecommunications industry regulator, will today unveil plans for yet another numbering upheaval to meet the apparently insatiable British demand for phone lines, writes Chris Godsmark.

As with phONE day last year, when a "1" was added to every area dialling code, today's announcement could cost businesses hundreds of millions of pounds and herald another boom for sign writers and stationery printers.

PhONE day added a possible 8 billion new numbers, but five cities - Greater London, Belfast, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Southampton - will still run out of numbers by the end of the century. This is the second set of proposals by Oftel to satisfy this demand. Last year's consultation paper met with a less than enthusiastic response from the industry and consumer groups.

Oftel's previous idea was to divide the country into 10 regions, which would use the prefix "02". These numbers would run in parallel with existing "01" numbers. The change would have provided another 800 million potential numbers, but if a friend or neighbour had the new code, a caller with the old one would have to dial the whole area code to make a local call.

The problem is that the present system, devised by the GPO in the 1950s, is inefficient. It divides the country into 638 roughly equal geographical areas, but generally only 40 per cent of potential numbers can be used.

Demand for phone lines has exploded in recent years with new phone companies bidding aggressively for customers. The move from company switchboards to direct lines and the growing appetite for home fax and modem lines has made matters worse. New phone operators are also allocated spare numbers in blocks of 10,000, regardless of whether they need them all.

The changes must take place over the next four years. But as with phONE day, which cost BT pounds 100m, the two systems will run side by side to prevent undue confusion.