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Ofcom mulls popular number charge

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Ofcom is considering charging companies which want numbers in popular area codes, and getting rid of local phone dialling to eke out the existing number ranges.

The two measures are open to consultation until February next year. They are designed to provide more local phone numbers - which are running critically short - by encouraging companies to apply only for what they need and hand back what they're not using, while increasing the quantity of numbers available by making everyone dial an area code for every call.

That would allow local phone numbers to start with "0" and "1", something they can't do at present as "01" and "02" are always area codes under the existing system. But Ofcom reckons that with more than 300 communication providers being allocated numbers there's a lot of wastage going on - for technical reasons the minimum allocation is often 1000 numbers, so companies are sitting on lots of numbers they're not using.

The best way to get those numbers back, according to Ofcom, is to make the companies pay for numbers in the more popular area codes. That should provide them with an incentive to aggregate their customers, and share number blocks with other providers.

It's possible to imagine a provider with only two customers, but in separate 1000-number blocks (one acquired through acquisition of a competitor, for example) that provider can't hand back either block without changing a customer number, and has no incentive to do so. Once those numbers have a financial value the provider might push both customers into one block, or even sub-let a couple of numbers from a competitor and return 2,000 numbers to Ofcom.

Getting everyone to dial area codes might prove more controversial to end users, though the same condition already applies to mobile phones and most users seem to have got the hang of that (though it was a big deal in the early days).

The fact is there aren't enough numbers, with suitable area codes, to go around - but if you've a better way to spread them out then Ofcom will be delighted to hear from you. ®

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