24 August, 2003: The Number You Have Dialled Has Not Been Rebranded

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The directory enquiries service provided by your telephone company has now, as everyone has heard, been replaced by a set of commercial services with six-digit numbers starting 118. The notion is that the commercial services can compete on price and customers will choose the best-value ones, resulting in a dose of healthy capitalist goodness all round. As many in the media have pointed out, this is rather silly, because most consumers won't put in the effort to research which service to use and will probably end up getting ripped off, at least until the new services are well established in the public's mind.

Ofcom have missed an obvious way to retain the user simplicity of the old system while getting the benefits of competition. All they need to do is to solicit price information from all the 118... services, and then have calls to 192 automatically redirect to the cheapest of them, prefixed with a message saying

Your call is being redirected to 118 xyz, provided by name of directories company, which is likely to be the cheapest provider for your call. Hang up now and redial if you wish to use another provider.

The vast majority of consumers would carry on using 192, and automatically get the cheapest service. If their needs were more complex (e.g. they need to resolve several numbers in a row), they would still be able to pick from a list of more specialist providers. As an added bonus there would be no need to plaster the Underground with posters of moustachioed refugees from the 1970s running around with numbers on their chests.

Ofcom come so close with,

Callers now hear a recorded message with a freephone number that selects at random the number of one of the more than 20 replacement services, which all begin with 118.

-- if only `selects at random' were replaced with `selects the cheapest'. (Note that the BBC article above heavily promotes two particular services, which seems a bit odd.)

Of course, you may as well use BT's free on-line directories service; rather feebly, they try to permit only ten searches per day per web browser (or, as they think, `per person'), but this is `enforced' with cookies, so if you just delete the BT cookie and go back to directory enquiries home page, you can use it as often as you want. Idiots.


Anthony Wells has some complaints about the above (as well as arguing that suggesting a solution is `[giving] in to the cretins' -- as Richard Nixon said, `solutions are not the answer'...).

I should have elaborated exactly how I would suggest Ofcom go about implementing the 192-redirect service. Anthony rightly points out that `cheapest' is ambiguous in the presence of complex price structures. However, Ofcom know or can find out what a `typical' (modal, presumably) directory enquiries call looks like: how long it takes, whether one or more numbers are looked up; whether the caller asks to be connected to the number that is found, and so forth. My guess is that the vast majority of callers request a single number then hang up.

Given pricing information -- no doubt communicated automatically to Ofcom via the medium of XML or whatever other bullshit data format is presently trendy in the telecoms industry -- Ofcom can determine which service is cheapest for the typical call. They can publish this information, and, as I suggest above, announce it to callers so that they know to whom they are being connected before they are charged anything.

Ofcom could do this evaluation automatically every day or week, and so an operator who dropped their prices below those of the current destination of the 192-redirect would automatically replace them. It's hard to see how this would encourage the inertia of which Anthony warns.

Naturally, there is a risk that the cheapest service wouldn't be very good; however, Ofcom presumably already monitor the quality of these services and we could add a clause to the evaluation above to restrict the tender to services which don't suck. In practice I'd be surprised if this matters, since I'd have thought all these people are going to be working from the same database of numbers and will be equally competent.

It would also be possible, in principle, for a provider to appear to be the cheapest for a `typical' call, then ramp the call charge up sharply after this. However, the tarriff types used by current operators don't include such a possibility among the four available. The closest is `two rate' (fee for first minute plus cost per minute of further call), but if most calls don't go beyond a minute, such a service mightn't be the worst choice; and if most calls did extend long beyond a minute, it's hardly likely that a service which ramps up its prices after the first minute would turn out cheapest.

Other objections are, basically, that nominating one provider -- even the cheapest -- limits choice. This isn't really true, since I'm not proposing that the other 118xyz services are abolished; simply that 192 becomes a shorthand for the service which is likely to be cheapest. It would still be possible to dial 118xyz to get a particular service.

There's a broader point here, too. The only purpose of opening the directory enquiries service to other providers is to improve service to the consumer, in this case by making it cheaper. Experimentally, we observe that competition often -- but not always -- has this effect. But advertising, consumer research and so forth aren't always necessary for us to benefit from competition. If the best provider in any given circumstance is well-enough defined -- as I believe is the case for directory enquiries -- then all we need is a service which selects the best one. Telephone companies (and large organisations with complex telecoms needs) already do this to buy long-distance capacity, and most users probably don't even know about it. 192 seems to be another example where the same principle applies.

(As a final note, I'd expect the hypothetical cheapest 192-redirect service to be free, but to play an advert before the caller gets their number. It would probably minimise personnel costs by using voice recognition whenever possible and poorly-paid people in call centers abroad when not. There would be neither bells nor whistles. I'd find the adverts bloody irritating and would use another service, but many others wouldn't.)

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.