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One year on and deregulation disappoints

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A year after the UK's directory enquiries (DQ) sector was deregulated critics claim that punters are worse off because they're paying more for an inferior service.

DQ outfit 192.com claims punters are being forced to cough up £64m more today for obtaining phone numbers than they did under the old 192 service supplied by BT. A year to the day since the DQ sector was opened up to more than 100 operators, punters are paying 37 per cent more for their number enquiries and often getting a second-rate service.

What's more, it's also estimated that of the 2,500 extra call centre staff taken on last year to cope with the expected demand post de-regulation, the majority are no longer employed due to the drop in call volumes.

Analysis by 192.com - which offers free DQ services at its website - reveals that the number of calls made to DQ operators has fallen by 40 per cent on the year and that one in ten people have stopped using the service completely. Part of that slide has been blamed on the increased cost of the services and confusion among users about what services are on offer.

Alastair Crawford, CEO at 192.com, believes that the dereguation of the DQ sector - one of the last major initiatives of former telecoms regulator Oftel, before it was replaced by Ofcom - has failed to live up to the hype and expectation. And he believes that obtaining numbers should be free, especially since it is the telcos who benefit from people making the calls.

Said Mr Crawford: "Being charged for DQ is like going into a restaurant and being charged to see the menu."

BT has also acknowledged that the change to 118 XXX services has not been without problems. Said Paul Elliott, chief executive of BT Directories: "Oftel's withdrawal of 192 was extremely unpopular with customers. The restrictions on how we communicated the change to 192 callers led to confusion and we saw a huge drop in call volumes." However, he reckons things have picked up since then and that BT is now the leading DQ provider in the UK.

Earlier this year the National Audit Office (NAO) launched an investigation into just how effective the liberalisation of the UK's DQ sector has been for consumers. The study is looking at how well Oftel managed the switch-over and whether the expected benefits for punters - better, cheaper and more accurate services - have been realised.

The NAO is expected to publish its report later this year. ®

Related stories

The Number & BT in DQ supremacy spat
BT in 118 500 price hike
Thus pulls out of 118 to protect reputation
118 services not up to scratch Oftel
Which? slams 118 services
Directory enquiries calls in free fall post 118 BT
192 switch-off not cheaper for punters
Confusion reigns ahead of 192 switch-off

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