CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - DIRECTORY ENQUIRIES. Deregulation has called for timely ads from directory services

The challenges thrown at BT appear to change every day. Right now the telecoms giant faces a threat to its estimated £350 million income from directory enquiries following the deregulation of the market and the current launch of rival services.

New six-digit numbers, all starting with 118, went on sale at the time of deregulation. One of the first new brands is The Number, the UK-wing of the long-established US company INFONXX, which has committed £30 million to its launch, spending an initial £2 million on securing the number (118118) and then a further £16 million on its communications. It is launching in direct competition to BT's existing 192 service.

TV advertising for The Number, created by WCRS, was launched last week.

It aims to familiarise the public with the new service well in advance of competitors and before the phasing out of BT's current service in August.

Most of the new services are likely to charge 45p per enquiry. Instead of price-based competition, The Number is aiming to differentiate "with character", which it plans to do using a TV launch and outdoor and ambient push.

Chris Moss, the chief executive at The Number, says: "We prefer to look at ourselves as a directory assistance company, offering more detailed help and information. We're aiming to redefine the marketplace, combining the old enquiries and operator system with an information service, to help us stand out in what could possibly become a cluttered market."

However, in a market previously dominated by one provider, the competition will be stiff, with BT, Orange, Telegate, Yellow Pages and Conduit, which also launched last week, all having purchased 118 numbers.

Moss believes the strongest competition will only be coming from one corner. "It is expected that BT will retain up to 60 per cent of the market even though it is due for retirement. The 192 service is acting its age and cannot manage the technology," he said. "There is a new younger breed coming along that can offer more services because of the advances in tech-nology. It will become a different marketplace."

Nevertheless, BT is at risk of losing more than £150 million from deregulation. With its new number, 118500, set to take over from 192 and 153 (International Enquiries), BT will have to be a strong competitor in the market. It is planning to offer more advanced services to stay ahead of the rest.

"We cannot afford to be complacent," Simon Lubin, the head of marketing for BT Directories, says. "We recognise we are now in a competitive market so we have to get out there and convince the consumers to use our service, rather than just expect them to stick with us."

Current activity from the incumbent includes door drops and an ambient execution on BT vans. A more high-profile campaign will launch in the run-up to August, but BT believes if it launches too soon, people will not take notice.

"It will be a tough market and we don't want to communicate too early," Lubin adds.

With so many operators attempting to get their unfamiliar six-digit figures front of mind at the same time, stand-out is going to be difficult to achieve.