My blog title refers to BT’s ‘no frills’ directory inquiries service, and I’ll come onto the significance of this later in the post.
Ten years ago, 192 (and 153 for international) was the only, and easy to remember, telephone number used to provide a directory inquiries service. Originally free, it did eventually cost 40p a call, yet it provided a simple, quick and efficient service – manned by staff who largely were familiar with the quirks of the many idiosyncratic place names in this country born out of our rich history and heritage.
In 2003, however, that was all to change. 192 was abolished on 24 August 2003 and the service opened up to competition. According to Ofcom at the time the reason was (in answer to question 17):
This is why we have decided to create better value and choice for you by introducing the new range of 6-digit numbers for DQ services, each starting with 118. All DQ service providers can compete on equal terms.
Ah the ‘better service and choice’ argument, but the real clue for the change is given further on in the answer:
Several other countries have already successfully introduced similar changes to their DQ markets.
We have chosen numbers starting with 118 because other countries in Europe will increasingly be using these numbers for their DQ services.
What is left unsaid, and was at the time, the reason for the change was EU Directive 2002/77/EC, specifically article 5:
Member States shall ensure that all exclusive and/or special rights with regard to the establishment and provision of directory services on their territory, including both the publication of directories and directory enquiry services, are abolished.
As a result of complying with EU law, what then followed resembled a farce in the UK by Ofcom – the governing body – who quite frankly didn’t have a clue. Naturally prices went up and were on the whole confusing, standards plummeted and most of the original copious services faded away as inevitably BT, and obviously 118 118, cornered the market. Not only that, but in order to comply, a coach and horses had to be driven through previous legislation which resulted in the Communications Act 2003.
Ofcom have clear laid out categories within their telephone numbering plan. For example; Freephone (0800), Local rate (0845), National rate (0870) and Premium rate (090). The problem is that national rate has an upper limit of 10p per minute. This meant that for directory inquiries companies they could not make work a service that would be cost effective – it would be an unworkable business model. As a consequence it was obvious in 2002 that 118 numbers would have to fall into the Premium rate category, allowing companies to charge a phone call rate that recoups their costs at the very least.
So Ofcom, eager to comply with EU law, hit on another problem, by forcing 118 numbers to come under the Premium rate category meant being part of the one area of telephone services that is heavily regulated (a reason why many chatline services advertised in national papers are national 0870 numbers because the rules are far more relaxed).
Applying for a Premium rate number in 2002 meant having a 75 page booklet (ICSTIS 10th edition – now known as PhonepayPlus) of ‘do’s and don’ts’, as well as legal responsibilities, thrown at you. These conditions at the time for most premium rate numbers included:
- Not allowed to be put on hold
- A maximum cost for the phone call was set – for example 6.2 (a) (Pay for Product Services) [product must not cost] more than £20.00 or (d) terminate by forced release.
- Premium rate callers must be over 18, for example 5.6.2 (a) Service providers must ensure that operators use reasonable endeavors to prevent persons under 18 years of age from taking part…
- Children’s services had a category of its own and under 6.1.2 (b) the service should only be used with the agreement of the person responsible for paying the telephone bill…or as another example, 6.1.4 (a) Children’s services must cost no more than £3.00.
- There’s a maximum price per minute, a maximum which varied service to service – but was set ultimately at £1.50 per minute.
- Advising you at the beginning of the call how long the call was likely to last and how much it ws to cost for example 6.6.2 (b) include an introductory message, giving the likely total cost of the call…
The rules were, and are endless, but in order to deregulate the directory inquires service they were circumnavigated by Section 120 of Communications Act 2003, which gave Ofcom the power to regulate the Premium rate industry but crucially it did not apply to all Premium rate services (my emphasis) thus letting 118 numbers off the hook:
120 Conditions regulating premium rate services(1)OFCOM shall have the power, for the purpose of regulating the provision, content, promotion and marketing of premium rate services, to set conditions under this section that bind the persons to whom they are applied.
(2)Conditions under this section may be applied either-
(a)generally to every person who provides a premium rate service;
Ofcom could therefore ride roughshod over existing regulation:
In a classic example of understatement, it cited the example of one man who was charged £350 for a 118 call and connection from a landline in 2009: “Consumer has said that he is upset with the lack of information given by directory enquiries as they didn’t advise him of what the connection costs would be and the charge to call them.”
Thus 118 numbers were given the freedom to put people on hold – by necessity of volume of calls at any given moment – and charged more the fixed rate per minute, plus no upper limit because that would mean cutting off a phone call with your gran (for example) after exceeding the limit when being put through.
There was also another problem which affected businesses, which was rarely reported. The ability of 118 services to put callers through to a number of their choice, which not only incurred a significant cost but more importantly it posed a telephony security risk.
At the time of the change, one part of my previous job was being a PBX installer and programmer. For those unfamiliar, a PBX is a private branch exchange – a telephone exchange installed in big companies or hotels -one that allows many extensions numbers to be used in one building as an example. (Technology has now moved on and with VOIP (Voice over IP) – the technology behind Skype – the traditional PBX has largely been made redundant, but I digress).
Typically to save businesses money, premium rate and national rate numbers would be barred on such a system. Yet by dialing 118, it allowed company employees to bypass barred numbers by being put through via a 118 service. They could ring up and ask for the number or service in question, costing the company a lot of money in the process.
The reason I mention this is because part of my job involved conducting a cost/benefit analysis of the new 118 services – initially due the incompetence of Ofcom a hugely frustrating process. Ultimately though this actually proved to be dead easy because very few 118 numbers at the time provided the PBX security that was required – i.e a bog standard service. I lost count of the number of 18 year old Account Managers (who I knew I wouldn’t see in 6 months time) trying to sell me their product’s services – bells and whistles – that I didn’t want and were anyway against company policy.
And that leads me onto 118707 – the title of my blog post. Though the number is not well advertised, 118707 is the BT service designed for businesses mainly for the reasons listed above. In short it’s the old 192 service in disguise. Dialing it is like going back in time.
But such is progress courtesy of the European Union…