Playing the telephone number game around the world

UK is the victim of early liberalisation policies, writes Charles Arthur
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The UK is not the only country which is going through the hell of telephone renumbering.

This year, Australia has just added a digit to every phone number, the US has introduced a new tier of freephone numbers, and France has reorganised Paris's phone numbers and is contemplating a wider-scale reorganisation of the whole country's numbers.

Not so long ago, Tokyo added another digit to cope with its rapidly-growing demand for new numbers.

The fact that we are about to undergo another round of changes simply reflects our more liberalised regime, say experts - who say that other countries will have the same problems in years to come.

"Telecommunications is the fastest-growing business in the world," said Stephen Young, of the telecomms consultancy Ovum yesterday. Figures from the International Telecomms Union back that up: although half the world's population has never made a phone call (presumably for lack of access), at the end of 1993, the official waiting list for telephone service worldwide was almost 45 million people, a historical high, and worldwide investment in telecomms that year reached US$ 130 billion.

"Our problems simply reflect the fact that we liberalised before everyone else - in 1984. But nobody saw how numbering was going to become important as a competitive issue. It was a technical, arcane subject for a very small crowd."

No longer. While it is easy to think that the US must have somehow hit on a perfect structure - with its three-digit area code, and seven-digit "local" numbers - that is deceptive. The 212 area code used to cover all of New York.

Then in 1985, the 718 code was introduced to cover three of the city's five boroughs, excluding Manhattan and the Bronx; in 1993 it absorbed the Bronx too. Now, 212 only covers Manhattan, and 2 million of the possible 10 million numbers are allocated.

"We think we're in pretty good shape here," said a spokesman for Nynex, the local phone company.

Change is on the way. The US's 1996 Telecomms Act will allow competition among local telephone companies, rather than the monopolies that presently exist.

The likely effect will be to create the same pressures on numbers as has happened in the past decade in the UK. In the US, Bell Corporation is in charge of organising a national renumbering plan - which they know will have to come in the next few years.

Other countries will also have had to deal with the pressure on their number systems. The "Asian tigers" have the seeming advantage that telephones were not widely available until recently, so that they have room to grow.

But their numbering systems will quickly begin to creak under the strain, just as Japan's has done. "Once you pull your finger out of the dyke you just don't know what consequences there will be," said Mr Young.

Certainly in the UK, the consequences have been clear: phone use has exploded. Someone in a small business can easily have telephone numbers for their home, home fax, business, business fax and mobile phone.

Those hoping for an easy solution are out of luck: personal numbers will not solve the problem of the growing demand for numbers, as many people will want to keep home and work identities separate.

On that basis, renumbering is the only option. The only help that technology can offer is more intelligent telephones. With those, we will increasingly store numbers together with names - then we will be able to dial the latter rather than the former.