Fixed-line phone numbers are changing so often that it is becoming a serious problem for both companies and private individuals. Apart from the changes associated with relocation, BT's Phoneday in April 1995 and other localised dialling code changes have led to two successive number shifts recently for London subscribers. Reading in Berkshire, in particular, is running out of fixed-line numbers, and another dialling code move is in the pipeline for 1997.
One of the problems with changing between telecoms providers, such as BT and cable companies, is that you can't keep the same phone number.
So companies can often end up spending extra money on reprinting stationery - and may even lose business. Fax machines are also a problem because you can't put a recorded announcement on a fax line.
This is where a personal phone number comes in. It is allocated to an individual or a company, and the subscriber decides what it will be used for. For example, it could be dedicated to a fax machine, a sales enquiry line or a computer bulletin board. The number is tied to a person or company and not a specific phone.
By dialling a control centre, the owner of the personal number can redirect it to any existing telephone service using a password for security and a touch-tone dialling phone to enter the destination number. Some services can even screen calls by asking callers for their name and passing this information to the recipient, who then decides whether to accept it.
Major companies are buying blocks of up to 100 personal numbers to use for marketing purposes. For example, one large travel agency is spending huge sums advertising its personal numbers, while directing calls to these numbers to its local franchised agents. The obvious advantage of using these numbers is that the company's investment in advertising is protected when agencies change.
Personal numbers can also be used in 'virtual' companies. Richard Dowdeswell, director of computer-aided software company Loud & Bow, has closed his expensive and prestigious offices, and staff now work from home or on the road with mobile phones. The company uses personal phone numbers to redirect business calls to whoever is the designated switchboard operator on a daily or even hourly basis.
This can be a powerful and cost-effective way of working - particularly if it is adopted in conjunction with BT's Feature Line service. This means that the 'home switchboard operator' needs only one home phone line, with the Feature Line facility redirecting any number of calls to the respective employees.
There are currently six service providers of personal numbers: BT One Number, Callsure, Cellnet Personal Assistant, Flextel, Mercury One Call and The Personal Number Company. Some also offer a 'calling card' facility which allows users to make cheap outbound calls from anywhere in the world.
This means you can often bypass expensive hotel switchboards by setting up an incoming call which then offers a dial-tone for dialling out.
Flextel was the first company to launch a service in December 1993 using the number prefix 09567, which was sub-allocated from One-2-One. From Phoneday, the numbers beginning 070 have gradually become available for personal numbering services and, again, Flextel was the first service provider to offer these numbers in June 1995.
Although lacking some of the bells and whistles of its competitors, Flextel was also the first to offer an automatic 'follow-me' redirection facility.
By keying in the short code '0no. ', it uses the Calling Line Identification (CLI) of the phone you are calling from to determine where you want your calls redirected to. Also, because of its relationship with One-2-One, Flextel does not charge for redirecting calls to One-2-One numbers.
Mercury was next to market with its One Call service. This was the first to offer a 'hunt group' of up to three numbers, which it tries in turn until it locates the subscriber. However, Mercury misjudged the market by offering an extremely expensive service, which had a long screening delay before putting the caller through. As a result, One Call has been temporarily withdrawn from the market pending a relaunch of a revised service in 1997.
At the end of 1995, the Personal Number Company (PNC) launched its 07000 service. PNC is an appointed service provider of Vodata, which in turn is the Value-Added Network Service operator of the Vodafone Group. This, too, is expensive, with connection charges and annual fax mailbox fees high considering its modest features.
Perhaps offering greater value for money is Redstone Network Services' Callsure numbers. Employing an innovative marketing strategy, the company is selling these numbers through many phone shops, including Carphone Warehouse and Dixon's The Link chain. Priced at #19.99 and with no annual charge or call-forwarding costs, Callsure is certainly the cheapest service on the market.
Cellnet, one of the big names in the industry, launched its Personal Assistant service using 0706 numbers in October 1996, following trials with 0408 prefixes. Based on technology from TPS Call Sciences, Cellnet's service has comprehensive call-screening, hunt groups, voicemail and fax store-and-forward features. It also has a feature to suspend call-forwarding, which forces all calls to voicemail. However, this can be bypassed with a personal identification number (PIN), which can be given to close friends or colleagues.
BT is also set to enter the game in January with its One Number service.
The tariffs will be similar to Callsure, but with an additional cost of #119.88 a year. BT claims it is cheaper to pick up voice messages, and change the routeing destination number as those calls are always charged at local rate.
However, voicemail is not really central to personal numbering because most users already have other voicemail systems at the destination number.
One of the main drawbacks with these services is that many callers mistakenly add an extra '1' after the initial zero, thanks to BT's over-simplistic marketing of Phoneday back in April 1995.
Flextel had the foresight to acquire a number range beginning 0701 that was not being used before Phoneday. So, if you dial 01701, you get a message telling you to remove the '1' after the initial zero. Other service providers won't be able to do this because most other numbers beginning 070 already existed before Phoneday, so some can legitimately be prefixed 0170.
Another problem might arise if you use Calling Line Identification (CLI), either by dialling 1471 for the number of the last caller or by using a phone system which displays CLI. Not all personal numbering services are 'transparent' to CLI, which means that the CLI of the caller is passed through the re-direction system and presented unchanged at the destination.
Verdict: Flextel offers the best overall value-for-money and is especially attractive for One-2-One mobile phone users. It also has the most comprehensive protection from mis-dialling problems. Cellnet Personal Assistant has the most features, but is more expensive. Callsure is the cheapest from the owner's point of view, but the mobile version is the most expensive for callers, while The Personal Number Company is pricey for an unremarkable service. BT's One Number can also be an expensive option, unless you use its voicemail extensively.
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