Agencies join fight to block plans for freephone numbers

- More than 80 companies, including advertisers and direct marketing agencies, have formed an alliance to fight Oftel's plans to radically change freephone numbers.

- More than 80 companies, including advertisers and direct marketing agencies, have formed an alliance to fight Oftel's plans to radically change freephone numbers.

The Freephone User Group claims that Oftel's proposal -- which is currently under consultation -- to move all existing and future six-digit 0800 numbers to seven digits could cost the telephone-based industries £500 million if it is implemented. Seven changes in all have been suggested, but the one the alliance cites as the major cause for concern is the insertion of a fixed digit between 0800 and the rest of the number.

This means that advertisers such as Guardian Direct, the AA and Forte Hotels, all members of the alliance, would have to change the trademark numbers around which they have built their marketing campaigns. Forte, for example, has 0800 40 40 40. while Guardian Direct plays on its owl emblem with 0800 28 28 20.

The alliance claims that Oftel has failed to consult properly, and has failed to make a strong case for the change.

Oftel explained that a major contributing factor in the change is that it wants to change all the current 0500 numbers -- free lines managed by cable telephone operators -- to 0800 numbers to create a single identity for customers to recognise. A spokesperson said: "0800 has become an accepted standard, but the 0500 numbers are not so easily recognised as being free of charge to the consumer. While there is currently room for expansion in the 0800 field, the capacity will reduce when 0500 numbers are moved over."

The Direct Marketing Association, whose long-standing Telephone Council is also rallying against the proposals, claims that there is plenty more capacity for new six-digit numbers.

Robert Dirskovski, the council manager, said: "The capacity issue is very weak. Only 30 per cent of the current 0800 capacity is in use and 0500 only accounts for 20 per cent of freephone numbers. There are other ways around this. We propose that existing numbers are allowed to stay the same, while new ones will carry seven digits."

Court Burkitt & Company is a member of the Freephone User Group, and Julian Calderara, its managing director, said: "It is irksome when advertisers invest substantially in making a telephone number memorable and build the advertising around it, only to be told that they have to change. Some have invested millions over many years; the numbers may be granted by Oftel, but they are paid for by the advertisers."

The DMA has submitted a formal response to Oftel outlining its requirements. Oftel has not outlined a timetable for the process.


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