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Ofcom to create 116 bureaucracies

Proper freephone calls'n'all

UK regulator Ofcom is pondering how to best allocate the new vexation - as opposed to emergency - numbers mandated by the EU, to be standardised across Europe as freephone numbers starting 116.

The UN has already proposed that 116111 be adopted around the world as a number for children in distress to call. To this the EU has added 116000 for reporting missing children, and 116123 for those requiring "emotional support". The problem for Ofcom, and other regulators, is to decide to where such calls should be routed and how to ensure that calling them is free.

The initial part of that might seem trivial - 116000 should go to local police or 999, 116111 to NSPCC's excellent Childline, 116123 to the Samaritans - but that's not thinking like a civil servant.

Ofcom is, instead, proposing that the Cabinet Office "will establish advisory committees to advise us on the allocation of each 116 number". Anyone interested in providing the service then has six weeks to submit their request to the appropriate advisory committee, whereupon the committee will "assess the interested service providers and their services, advise Ofcom on which applicants meet the Service Eligibility Criteria and recommend which should be allocated the 116 number".

Ofcom then asks for some more paperwork, and finally makes a decision.

To be fair to Ofcom, it is trying to allow for future expansion of the 116 range, expecting the EU to allocate more numbers in the future, some of which might not have such an obvious destination. The regulator is also committed to making at least some of the 116 numbers truly free to call.

While many countries already have a freephone tariff, in the UK calls made to "freephone" numbers are not truly free if the call is made from a mobile phone - and Ofcom requires that callers are warned of that before the call is connected. The regulator reckons some vexatious services, including the three initially identified, should be truly free for the caller - though that's going to require some mucking about with the billing systems at the network operators.

The proposal (pdf) is just a consultation at the moment, with comments welcomed until 10 December. Hard not to imagine, though, that there must be a way of allocating three phone numbers without bothering the Cabinet Office or setting up three advisory committees. ®

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