On phONEday, 16 months ago, every dialling code in Britain was changed and now the industry watchdog is promising further chaos for millions of users. The proposals, unveiled by the regulator, Oftel, mean London numbers will be reorganised for the third time since 1990, with similar changes for Belfast, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Southampton by the turn of the century. Most mobile-phone dialling codes and many freephone numbers and premium-rate charge-line codes will also change, in a move likely to cost businesses and consumers millions of pounds. Don Cruickshank, head of Oftel, said: "I'm not saying it's going to be hassle-free."
Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, Nigel Griffiths, called it "staggering".
"Oftel ignored warnings that their '01' proposals were deeply flawed. The public and Government are entitled to know why Oftel refused to listen to the warnings."
The British Chamber of Commerce described the process as "wearisome." The Institute of Directors said: "We can't believe that they could suggest changing the dialling code system again, especially after all the despair it caused last time. If they are going to do this for new numbers then it shouldn't be placing extra burdens on existing businesses."
Oftel blames the changes on the apparently insatiable appetite for phone lines. Competition between phone com- panies is also creating demand for spare numbers, which are handed out in blocks of 10,000, whether they are needed or not.
PhONEday may have created a potential 8 billion new numbers, but shortages in some areas mean that the five cities listed yesterday will run out of numbers by the turn of the century. The plan is to use "02" for a new set of shorter codes. London's 0171 and 0181 would change to 020 and 022, with the addition of the number 8 to local numbers, creating 160 million possible new numbers.
More radically, Londoners could return to a single code, 020, for the whole of the capital. The previous 01 code for Greater London was abandoned in 1990. Belfast, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Southampton would also move to 02 codes and seven-figure local numbers. Mobile numbers will not escape either, with all the existing codes switching to an 07 prefix.
A further 21 towns and cities could change to 02 codes early in the next century if demand for numbers does not stop growing. One solution being studied by Oftel is to give businesses a new code structure beginning with 05, which would leave residential customers' codes unaffected. But this idea has come too late to save London, or Cardiff, or Southampton. A consultation period will last until October, with final proposals due in December.
Businesses will have to reprint stationery, reprogramme switchboards and replace signs.
Pressed about the cost, Mr Cruickshank admitted he "didn't know," but insisted that it would be less than last year's reorganisation.
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