UK Needs More Phone Numbers

Britain's phone companies have launched an aggressive campaign to explain to testy homeowners and annoyed business managers just why, come April, their number's up.

As Britain becomes more upwardly mobile, its phone numbering system has become obsolete, requiring its third and most chaotic overhaul in a decade.

"Obviously, this is not desperately popular," said Howard Sandom, campaign manager for Britain's $32.4 million Big Number telephone campaign.

Many customers were understandably annoyed when the latest changes were announced. In 1990, their prefixes had changed from 01 to 071 or 081. Five years later, when they were told to insert an 01 in the prefix and change again to 0171 or 0181, Don Cruikshank, then director general of Britain's Office of Telecommunications, boasted: "You will not have to change your number again in your lifetime."

That, however, was before the U.K. began its love affair with mobile phones, faxes and the Internet.

Today, new numbers are urgently needed in five areas: London, Belfast, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Southampton. A further 21 towns are expected to run out of numbers early next century.

"There is a certain amount of disquiet from businesses," said Vincent Burke, spokesman for London's Chamber of Commerce. "They've had to redo stationery, business cards, notify overseas customers... But the reality is, everyone in the public generally wants a mobile, a fax and a pager."

The first phase of the changeover will start Sept. 30. Mobile phone and pager numbers not beginning with the digits 07 are to adopt that prefix, with the old number running alongside the new prefix until April 2001.

Residential and business lines will be overhauled next, on April 22, 2000. Britain's city code, much like North America's area codes, currently begins with a 0, all new codes will start with 02.

Among the prefixes being retired is 0171, which denotes a central London address with a cachet similar to Manhattan's 212 in New York City.

Although the majority of changes don't take effect until April, the phone industry has launched a 24-hour help line to assist customers with crossed wires.

"We're taking several thousand calls per day now, about 150,000 calls since May. It's a big issue now and we have eight months to go," Sandom said.

Oftel, the telephone regulator, won't venture to guess the potential expense of the latest change, but government departments and businesses estimated they spent tens of millions of dollars in 1995 to change stationery and upgrade switchboards.

"It is certainly costly," said the Chamber of Commerce's Burke. "But this also shows that this is an economy that's thriving."

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