Leading Article: Our numbers are up yet again

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The Independent Online
IT IS JUST progress, really. Not much point in protesting, even though it is costing millions. Yet people will surely grumble about the new telephone area codes now running parallel with the old ones until they take over next April.

Regional loyalties have precious few badges of identity to cling to. Shops and pubs are much the same everywhere. Television programmes vary only slightly. The frontiers of local government seem to change at the whim of distant authority. Postal codes rule. Telephone exchanges with names are a distant memory. But area codes are their vestigial remains, fragile clues to names that can be discovered only by diligent research. Putting '1' before them will not destroy them but push them deeper into digital anonymity.

The main reason for the change is not that the country is running out of numbers but that it needs more codes for the new services and phone companies that have proliferated since deregulation. Some of the consumers' savings from competition must now be clawed back to pay for wider infrastructure.

There are different ways of going about these things. The wily French announced the abolition of area codes but merely joined them to local numbers, making the dialling of local calls more cumbersome in the name of rationality. The Americans, who are also about to expand their codes, retain letters alongside figures on their dials, largely for the benefit of commercial enterprises wanting numbers that can be memorised as words. Thus C-H-I-C-K-E-N might connect to a takeaway. Less fortunately, an American politician discovered that his toll-free number spelt out H-E-'S-N-U-T-S.

The idea could work in Britain, although it would mean adding tiny stickers to existing phones. Phone companies could then coin money by selling personalised numbers, like car licence plates, for premium fees. But, while the rich would have memorable numbers, the rest of us would continue to flounder in the rising tide of unmemorable digits.

That is the real pain of longer numbers - their forgettability. We are promised stability for many years after this change but no one will believe it. Even when, as predicted, we are all allotted telephone numbers at birth, bringing the final demise of area codes, the digits will surely continue to multiply.