A facility that’s a hangover from an age in which everyone had a single landline number that was listed in a paper directory freely accessible to all, has degenerated under deregulation into a free-for-all in which companies can, for the moment, charge whatever they like for providing the most minimal of services.
Calling directory enquiries used to be a matter of dialling 192 and waiting - often it seemed like an eternity - for someone at the GPO to answer, and then scribbling down the number you wanted with a pencil.
Today, there is no need for a pencil because the new 118 services will connect you automatically to the number you want - but the cost of doing that, plus the “connection fee” and the charge for the service could buy you a fish supper for two.
I dialled a 118 number accidentally the other week and hung up within seven seconds. Nevertheless, a charge of £8, including VAT, appeared on my bill.
I got off lightly. One enquiry service increased its price last year to a minimum of £8.98. And the regulator, Ofcom, says some firms charge more still - up to £10.50 a call.
The charge is made up of a flat-rate connection fee, which Ofcom says is typically up to £7, and a per-minute charge of up to £3.50. But some providers charge more.
The directory enquiries market is dominated by two firms - BT and The Number - but there are actually around 400 companies offering to look up numbers for you, and because very few of us use them often enough to commit their numbers to memory, it’s hard to tell one from another.
Even within the same firm, charges vary hugely. Calls to The Number’s line on 118 118 cost £4.49 a call, plus another £4.49 a minute, with a minimum 60-second charge. On top of that, you will pay an “access charge” per minute levied by your own phone company.
Yet, if you dial the very similar 118 811 number, operated by the same company, you pay only £1 a call, plus the access charge.
In this connected age, there is really no need to use one of these services at all – you can search for the number of any business or individual for free on BT’s website. But if you really must dial an enquiries service, the one number to programme into your phone’s memory is 0800 118 3733. This again is operated by The Number but it costs you nothing, so long as you decline any offer to connect automatically. Instead, you must listen to an advert that goes on for longer than it took the GPO to answer and which tries to sell you, in my case, a bunch of flowers.
When directory enquiries was deregulated in 2003, calls to BT’s 192 service cost 40p. Ofcom’s predecessor, Oftel, said at the time that consumers would get more choice and “real competition on price”. Instead, they have got what Ofcom now refers to as “billshock”.
The regulator’s decision not to impose a price cap on 118 calls last time it looked into the matter has clearly given some operators a licence to print money. A new Ofcom investigation will report this year but in the meantime, you may be able to find a more appropriate use for your dialling finger.