Misdialling fuels fears of phone meltdown

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The Independent Online

The phone number change introduced four months ago in six cities, including London, has not been a success. Every day, up to 15 per cent of the millions of calls inside those cities is misdialled, using the old code number.

The phone number change introduced four months ago in six cities, including London, has not been a success. Every day, up to 15 per cent of the millions of calls inside those cities is misdialled, using the old code number.

Now, the people at the organisation overlooking the wider change are concerned that when the changes are enforced across the country next month, it will lead to the telephone Armageddon widely predicted in April - and more worryingly, that it will principally be caused by machines, not people, making calls.

The expectations about how unready Britain, and especially Londoners, would be when the change occurred on 22 April, turned out to be correct. Nearly 40 per cent of people misdialled a local number when the changes were introduced - far above the 25 per cent that the telecommunications watchdog, Oftel, had expected based on its experience in 1995, when every phone number across the country had a "1" added as its second digit.

Anyone who dialled wrongly in London, Belfast, Cardiff, Coventry, Portsmouth or Southampton was put through to a recorded message telling them how to redial. But though the proportion of correct calls has risen steadily - to 68 per cent in June, 73 per cent in July, and between 85 and 90 per cent now - there is clearly a hard core of calls which are continually misdialled.

The number changes, such as "020" as a general prefix for London numbers (which changed from seven to eight digits) were introduced to accommodate the exploding demand for numbers for faxes, mobile phones and especially the internet.

Andrew Lawford of the Big Number organisation, set up to coordinate the telecoms companies, is getting ready for the bigger day in September when people who live outside those six cities will also have to use the new prefixes. Until now, somebody living in Edinburgh, for example, could still dial the old "0171" prefix for a London number and be put through. From next month, that too will earn a recorded reprimand.

He hopes that humans around the country have already learnt the lesson. "Part of the message we have been putting out is for people to tell their friends and customers about their new number. And we have seen an effect from that in terms of calls dialled from outside London which use the new prefix."

However, he fears there will be a huge "hidden" population which will keep dialling the wrong numbers: machines - such as computers, faxes and telephone exchanges.

"The trouble with them is that they get diverted to the automated messages, but being machines they don't take any notice of it. It's a machine talking to a machine which isn't listening. So when the machine that made the call gives up, it will just redial the number."

The problem will be worst on machines which were programmed some time ago, and where the instructions have been lost or the person who did the programming has left the company.

The suspicion is that the 10 to 15 per cent of misdialled calls now are made by machines, and that when people discover that a fax, for example, has not been sent because it was dialling the old number, they simply dial the number manually - leaving the wrongly programmed one inside the machine's memory.

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