01 February 1999

THE COMMONS TRADE & INDUSTRY Select Committee has delivered a stinging rebuke to Oftel, accusing it of ‘unjustified’ and ‘bungled’ changes to the UK telephone numbering system. The all-party Committee singled out Oftel’s handling of 0800 freephone numbers for particular criticism and urged it to think again: ‘We are totally unconvinced’, says the Committee’s report, ‘by Oftel’s arguments for changing freephone numbers and have been left with the impression that its proposals are in fact a smoke-screen for an attempt to create new ‘golden numbers’ which Oftel can auction to firms.’ The Committee’s report vindicates the anti-change campaign waged by the Freephone Users Group, an alliance of disparate companies using freephone numbers in their advertising - few with much in common save a major investment in establishing their numbers in the marketplace. Oftel was not the sole target for criticism: the Committee also directed its fire at the telephone operating companies: ‘Inefficient allocation of numbers is an underlying cause of the dispute ... if numbers were properly recognised as a scarce national resource, as they should be, the telephone operators would be on a charge of grossly negligent husbandry.’ The changes were first floated last July and have been vigorously opposed ever since.

Despite the Committee’s views and vigorous protests from marketers, Oftel is to ride roughshod over their objections and proceed with the introduction of new numbers as from April 2000. However, direct marketers will be relieved to learn that whilst other codes are subject to change, the 08 and 09 codes are to be retained, respectively for freephone and premium rate numbers.