The numbers game



At midnight tonight the plug is pulled on the old 192 number, portrayed as a doddery old codger in TV adverts. New 118 lines promise lower costs, but behind the scenes mobile phone operators are slipping in huge fees that will send bills soaring.
The £70m advertising splurge introducing the new 118 numbers reaches a crescendo this weekend as new operators try to grab a share of a market expected to be worth £1.2bn a year. But if mobile phone users dial any of the heavily-promoted new numbers, they are in for a shock.

Take the example of the number promoted by the marathon runner cult TV adverts, 118118. Its charge is 49p for connection then 9p per minute, which is the rate paid if a caller asks for 'call connect' and is put directly through.

So a five-minute call to 118118 from a BT landline will cost 90p. But from a Vodafone line the same call will cost £1.60, from 02 and T-Mobile it will be £3.25, and from Virgin it will be £3.75. Orange's pay-as-you-go customers are worst hit - they will be charged £5, or 455% more than the adverts suggest.

The pattern is repeated for nearly all the new 118 numbers: the mobile phone companies have layered in huge additional fees which make a nonsense of the advertised figures.

Conduit, the Irish-based operator of the 118888 number, trumpets its no-nonsense 20p flat rate for a directory search as half the price of the outgoing BT 192 service. But that's only for callers from a landline. For mobile users it is at least triple that price (60p or 65p) for all the networks except Virgin, and even there it is double the price at 40p.

The new 118 entrants are adamant they have no control whatsoever over how much the mobile phone companies charge. They accuse them of "profiteering" and "fleecing" customers amid the chaos caused by the abolition of 192, which after 999 was the most recognised number in Britain and rung 700 million times a year.

Ascertaining the cost of a mobile call to a 118 number will defeat most users. In a shocking admission, one of the biggest new operators, 118866, told Jobs & Money this week that it was having intense difficulty finding out from mobile companies what they will be charging callers to its service. What chance, then, do the customers themselves have?

A spokesman for 118866 said: "It is extremely difficult to get accurate information from the mobile companies who are very unwilling to reveal their pricing policies."

Telecom insiders say that mobile 118 charges cannot be explained away by reference to intrinsically higher costs of cellular telephony. Ian El-Mokadem, managing director of One.Tel, said: "There is a small additional cost, but it's only a fraction of a pence or two. The charges levied by mobile operators are very disappointing and are not in the spirit of the new competition rules. Most customers will regard the whole thing as one big rip-off."

The full impact will not be seen until mobile users receive their bills next month. A spokesman for Conduit, operators of 118888, said: "In a month's time there's going to be a lot of hassle from mobile phone users. It's going to become quite an issue."

The table below shows the charges levied by mobile companies for the major new 118 operators. In total, 80 companies applied for licences to operate 118 numbers, although fewer than ten are actively promoting their numbers.

The new operators range from the phenomenally expensive to the bizarre. One number identified by Jobs & Money - 118634 - is charged at up to £2.50 per minute for UK directory enquiries. Others routinely charge more than £2 for a single international number enquiry. The intriguingly-named 118GAY (118429 using an alphabetic keypad) is not some sort of premium-rate chatline but gives callers two options - first a standard directory assistance and secondly Talking Pages-style guidance on mature content bars and businesses.

Mobile phone users should identify the cheapest operators and add them to their mobile phone book and ignore the advertised numbers currently bombarding TV viewers. The advert frenzy is such that one operator alone, 118888, has booked every other ad break between 5.30pm and 11.00pm on ITV and C4 for a whole week, and the breaks in some programmes may end up showing back-to-back adverts from the rival players.

But what about calls from landlines? Unfortunately it's a similar picture of chaos and inflated charges.

BT is using the introduction of 118 to slip in a price hike of around a third. Its old 192 number cost a flat-fee 40p, but its new 118500 number will cost 25p for connection plus 30p a minute, taking the cost of a one-minute call to 55p, a 37% increase. Curiously, BT is not actively promoting its other 118 number, 118707, which allows you to access one search for a flat fee of 35p. Meanwhile at BT payphones, the 20p charge for directory assistance goes up to £1.20 per minute.

The best value 118 number from a landline is offered by 118800, Directory Enquiries UK, at a flat rate of 19p. But the UK tag is a little cheeky - all calls are routed to operators in South Africa. Next best is 118888 at 20p, and it comes with a long pedigree of operating services across Europe's deregulated markets.

BT is obliged under regulator Oftel's rules to offer access to every 118 operator. But it doesn't apply to the cable operators, which are offering just a handful of numbers. Telewest's 1.7m customers are worst off, only able to access calls at 40p (Telewest's own 118180 number) compared to NTL's 3 million customers who can ignore NTL's 118878 number (40p) in favour of 118888's 20p.


Staff member
Sep 24, 2012
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I'll be continuing to use BT Directory Enquiries 118 500, as BT's always been efficient in the past.

I tried 118 888 to see how quick they could find my own phone number, after 2 mins I gave up.

I then tried BT 118 500 and they gave me the number in about 30 sec's.