Phone number plan attacked

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Industrial Correspondent

Plans for a fresh overhaul of the nation's telephone numbers have been attacked by the Consumers' Association as a "subsidy" for businesses at the expense of the average consumer. The association said that some of the plans for the introduction of new codes - put forward by the industry regulator, Oftel - have "no place in a system aimed at putting consumers' interests to the fore".

The proposals for changes to the nation's numbering system were published by Oftel in June, two months after the Phoneday change which gave numbers an extra "1" and which cost British Telecom about pounds 100m. Among the suggestions are new regional codes beginning "02" and, in London, scrapping the 0171 and 0181 codes - introduced in 1990 - in favour of a single 010 code.

An industry source said the changes could cost tens of millions of pounds and that customers would ultimately foot the bill.

Oftel said that six cities - Cardiff, Belfast, London, Portsmouth, Reading and Southampton - could run out of numbers in five years. Reading is the most urgent case, partly because it attracts large businesses wanting thousands of direct-dial lines for employees.

The association told Oftel: "Most of the increased demand comes from business customers. It is often falsely suggested in the utilities that large [ie, business] customers subsidise domestic consumers. The recent and proposed changes to numbering provide a clear example of an instance in which domestic customers are in effect subsidising business customers."

Philip Cullum, the association's policy manager, said that the cost and upset caused to consumers should be taken into account at the next review by Oftel of telephone charges.

The association also said that Oftel's proposals for regional "02" codes - which would provide new numbers alongside existing "01" numbers - have not been thought through.

The concerns have been echoed by BT, which warned that the regional numbering scheme would be"very expensive and disruptive" for customers.

The association particularly criticises plans to bunch special services including "freephone" and premium rate in a new group with numbers beginning "08". It wants clear differentiation between expensive services and those charging less.

"The services which clearly do need to be separated are premium rate calls," it says.