Fixed-line numbers to get longer as mobiles run out of free digits

Fixed-line numbers to get longer as mobiles run out of free digits

New Delhi: Owners of fixed line phones will have to exercise their fingers a bit more in 2012 and beyond.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on Friday recommended that all phone numbers—both mobile and fixed line—should have 10 digits after 31 December 2011. Indian mobile phone numbers already have 10 digits while traditional land line phone numbers have six-eight digits.

The new numbering plan is in response to a looming shortage of phone numbers thanks to the huge growth in mobile telephony in recent years and replaces the National Numbering Plan of 2003, which had assumed that only one Indian in two—or 750 million people —would have a phone in 2030. India currently has 635.51 million cellphones and 36.18 million fixed line connections. The telecom regulator now estimates that India will need a billion numbers by 2014.

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“This would make available enough numbers to cater to the expansion of existing services and the introduction of new services for the next 30-40 years," said a Trai release. “The integrated numbering would also facilitate extension of number portability to fixed lines."

An integrated numbering system is prevalent in most countries, including the US and the UK.

In December, the department of telecommunications (DoT) had proposed to increase the number of digits for mobile phones to 11. “This (unprecedented growth) was leading to a shortfall of numbering resources before we had estimated," a senior DoT official had said at the time.

All preparations for migration to the new numbering system should be completed by 30 September 2011, said Trai. The recommendations draw from suggestions that phone companies and other stakeholders have made to the regulator.

“The integrated system would also enable number portability among land lines as mobile users would be able to port their numbers to their land lines and vice versa," a senior Trai official said, requesting anonymity. “The proposal to increase the existing number of digits in a mobile number to 11 was found unfeasible as it would lead to some amount of inconvenience to the consumer."

In its suggestions to Trai, India’s largest mobile phone firm, Bharti Airtel Ltd, had recommended a rehaul of the current numbering plan, since the number series starting from 2 to 6, and some numbers beginning with the digits 7 and 8, had been reserved for fixed line phones. For cellphones, only numbers starting with 9 and some beginning with 7 and 8 were reserved. This meant that 80% of the numbers were reserved for fixed line phones.

Along similar lines, Vodafone Essar Ltd had suggested that the existing series of numbers (currently assigned for land line use) be opened up to mobiles, thus freeing up some six billion numbers.

Trai has also said that until the new numbering system is put in place, all calls made from fixed line phones to mobiles would need to have a ‘0’ before the cell number. This would allow the exploitation of spare capacity of up to one billion numbers without affecting the phone number or the STD code.

The regulator agreed to suggestions from phone companies and other stakeholders that fees should not be levied on number series allotted to them. Trai further recommended that the existing system be strengthened to ensure that none of the operators hoard numbers.

In the present system, an operator is allotted new blocks of numbers based on their utilization. New blocks will be given to operators based on 80% utilization in case of fixed line and 60% utilization in case of mobile connections. But Trai has further recommended that no mobile operator be given more numbering resources if they have more than three million unused numbers.

Interestingly, Trai has also asked that it be put in charge of allocation of numbering resources. In the earlier recommendations on spectrum management, the regulator had asked to be put in charge of auditing of spectrum resources lying with the operators. Both these responsibilities presently vest with DoT.

Graphic by Yogesh Kumar / Mint