From 1957 to 2003, British landline callers wanting directory enquiries could dial only one number: 192.
Ten years ago, in 2002, this all changed when telecom regulator Oftel (now Ofcom) opened up the directory-enquiries market to competition. Very soon, more than 200 different providers were competing to capture callers seeking numbers.
In theory, ended 192's monopoly by opening up its closed shop to competition should have brought down prices and improved customer service. In fact, a decade later, the cost of dialling directory enquiries is a growing national scandal.
Let's take a look at the true cost of calling a 188 directory enquiries number.
The great 118 rip-off
Thanks to their multi-million-pound advertising budgets, two companies now control almost the entire market for 118 calls. These are The Number (118 118) and BT (118 500). The clear market leader is 118 118, best known for its awful adverts featuring two moustachioed athletes, who are clearly lookalikes of long-distance runner David Bedford.
Quite frankly, the charges levied by these companies and almost all other 118 providers are outrageous, thanks to these four rip-offs:
Connection charge: Just being connected to a 118 service could cost you roughly 50p.
Per-minute fee: For every minute or part-minute you spend finding a number, you'll pay upwards of £1.
Call connection: If you agree to allow the 118 operator to connect your call, then you'll continue to pay sky-high per-minute charges until your call ends. Three years ago, one customer complained to Ofcom after paying over £350 for a single 118-connected call.
Calling from mobiles: 118 calls from landlines are expensive, but from mobiles, they are astronomically overpriced. In fact, it would probably be cheaper to call the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars than to call a 118 number from your mobile!
118 calls comparedHere's a head-to-head comparison of the two leading 118 services, The Number and BT:
As you can see, calling these two services for up to a minute costs between £1.97 and £2.31. Any extra minutes are then billed at £1.59 or £1.69, making these calls extortionately high-priced.
Note that on 24 August 2003, the day it was abolished, the 192 service charged 40p to find a number. Now, rival 118 services cost upwards of £2 for a one-minute call -- and far more if calls are dragged out, connected onwards or not made from landlines.
Once again, deregulation has utterly failed the British public, as Oftel and its successor Ofcom have presided over a five-fold increase in the cost of calling directory enquiries. Well done, regulators!
Always use a free alternative
I reckon that, with up to 200 million yearly calls to 118 providers, we Brits waste as much as £400 million a year on this calling con. How can we stamp out this scam?
The simple answer is to boycott these services completely. Instead, try dialling 0800 118 FREE (0800 118 3733). This is a free, ad-based service for landline users provided by The Number (also the operator of 118 118).
Even better, if you have an Internet-connected device (such as a PC, Mac, laptop, smartphone or tablet PC), then use Google or similar search engines to find missing numbers