Don, those wrong numbers you dialled cost pounds 3bn

An open letter to the director general of Oftel
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The Independent Online
Dear Don Cruickshank,

First it was phONEday, now it's phTWOday. Isn't this just TWO much? Sixteen months ago you changed all the telephone numbers in the country. The change came after three years of planning, a pounds 20m advertising blitz and a total investment estimated at pounds 3bn. We're talking telephone numbers here. On second thoughts, we're not. Three billion has only 10 digits; London phone numbers have 11. And now you tell us that you got it all wrong and your "ability to forecast the increase in numbers is not very good". That ranks among the understatements of the decade.

In 1990, you changed London numbers from the simple 01 to 071 and 081. By adding one digit, which could have given a tenfold increase in numbers, you succeeded only in doubling them. Then, before you had begun to use the newly available numbers, you changed things again to 0171 and 0181. That made no new numbers immediately available, but made possible the change you have now announced.

You could have done this all in one go, you know. On the old 01 numbers there were seven digits to play with. That's enough for 10 million numbers. There are only 7 million numbers being used today. It would have demanded a little ingenuity on your part admittedly, but we could have staggered through to today without the 071s, 081s, 0171s and 0181s at all.

The changes have give you 11 digits to play with. That's enough for 10 billion numbers, all beginning with zero. Everyone who can talk could have 200 different numbers, yet only 16 months after introducing the system, you claim that it is approaching full capacity in some areas.

Of course we still need regional codes. As any psychologist can tell you, it's difficult to remember more than seven digits. But there must be a more sensible way to allocate codes to geographical areas than the way it has always been done. Doesn't the Isle of Mull use fewer than 10,000 of the 2.1 million numbers available to its three codes? And aren't there dozens of four-digit codes not in use at all? If you were looking for a temporary solution to regional over-demand 16 months ago, there was plenty of slack in the system.

"The situation we are in could and should have been anticipated on phONEday," you admit. How true. Indeed, it was anticipated on phONEday by the many informed critics who lined up to tell you that you had got things wrong. On the day before phONEday, Richard Cox, managing director of Mandarin Technology, a telecommunications consultancy, was quoted as saying that "we don't need the extra digit and it won't solve anything". He further criticised the changes by predicting that Reading, Belfast, Portsmouth and Southampton would require new numbers by early 1996. Now you tell us that London, Belfast, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Southampton urgently need new numbers. On top of that, you have the gall to say: "Fortunately, Oftel is now much better at predicting and responding to future demand." How can you make such a claim when all the recent evidence shows that you have been consistently wrong in predictions and ill-judged in response?

So the number of London lines has doubled in six years. What with faxes and the Internet, might that not have been anticipated? I understand you have suggested that anyone with any better ideas should contact you. There were many people with better ideas who did contact you 16 months ago, and you ignored them. Finally, you seem to be doing the right thing, but only after wasting pounds 3bn, which will surely be reflected in our phone bills, and pounds 2.5m of taxpayers' money in making the phONEday changes in government departments.

The telephone-number section of the nation's Filofaxes are a mess. We have amended the numbers of our loved ones with almost a billion despised 1s. And now you are telling us that we must change all the 0171s to 0207 or possibly 022 with another digit somewhere, yet to be announced.

Sixteen months ago, you said nobody in London would have to change their phone code "within their lifetime". What are you promising this time?

I did try, incidentally, to ask you these things personally. Directory Enquiries gave me your number ("Oftel, what city is that in?" the nice young man asked), but when I rang it, something sounding like an answering machine answered, but after a brief grunt there was no message to be heard. You really ought to get it fixed, you know.

Yours, William Harston