Number shortage could give HK a ring moan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong may be just seven years away from having to add a ninth digit to phone numbers - even though, in theory, 99,999,999 eight-digit numbers are available for a population of less than 7 million men, women and children.

To put off the advent of nine-digit numbers, the telecoms watchdog is considering charging for numbers.

Operators who hold blocks of numbers because they contain 'lucky' combinations attractive to subscribers are partly to blame for the shortage. But some combinations - those beginning with 0 - will never be issued, and those beginning with 1 are reserved for hotlines.

Other number combinations, such as those that begin with 4 or 5, have not been brought into use yet.

However, numbers beginning with 6 and 9 - reserved for mobile phone users - are close to running out thanks to the city's cellular craze; more than 9.92 million mobile numbers are in use - equal to 1.4 per person, while nearly one in 20 households no longer has a fixed-line phone.

Because of this, the first numbers starting with 5 will be issued this year, and there are also plans to issue mobile phone numbers starting with 7 - previously reserved for pagers.

Issuing nine-digit numbers would be a last resort, assistant director of telecommunications Chan Tze-yee told the Legislative Council's information services and broadcasting panel yesterday.

'We have to act now or else Hong Kong will run out of new numbers in seven years, if consumption continues at the rate it is going,' he said.

Hong Kong had six-digit phone numbers until the 1980s, with area codes. Seven-digit numbers were used from 1989 and an eighth digit added in 1995 - mainly by putting a 2 in front of existing numbers.

Panel vice-chairman Sin Chung-kai agreed the government should act promptly, since the social cost of changing phone numbers was huge. He said the proposal to charge telecoms operators HK$3 a year for each number they hold - including those not yet allocated to customers - should be an effective deterrent.

However, lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip said HK$3 was too little.

Operators would be given the option of returning unused numbers to avoid paying for them.

In a submission to the panel, PCCW-HKT, the leading telecoms operator in Hong Kong, said some operators holding blocks of phone numbers may not be able to return them to the Telecommunications Authority because they had already allocated some of the numbers within a block to customers.

Another operator, Wharf T & T, called the levy unjustified and said it would pass on the cost to its customers.