Change to be put on hold by phone firms

THE new phone companies which come into operation in less than two weeks are unlikely to ring up any changes in consumers' phone bills for some time.

New T and T, a subsidiary of Wharf Holdings, has put up roadwork signs boasting it is the only one of the three entrants building its own network.

It claims to be targeting small businesses run from home and - risking complaints of stereotyping - women callers, who really do spend longer on the phone than their male colleagues, according to New T and T statistics.

The company plans to unveil its logo on June 28, just days before it can officially start offering services. But the honour of being first to collect its licence is understood to belong to New World Telephone, which will do so today.

The networks promise video-phones and computer links to shopping and banking services, and possibly cheaper phone calls abroad.

A New World spokesman said the company was looking at various image and information services that could be squeezed down the high-capacity optical fibre line.

But all three have said that because of protracted negotiations with the Joint Liaison Group over the licences, which were agreed only in March, they had not had time to get their services ready for start-up on July 1.

Hutchison Communications, the third entrant, has said it expects to have a service in operation by October, and even New T and T does not expect its network to be up and running in two weeks' time.

However, at least one of the three is rumoured to be planning a small trial service with its own employees from start-up day.

The numbering was decided by ballot. For ordinary telephone numbers, New T and T will have numbers starting 211, Hutchison 212 and New World 213 - although consumers can swap companies and take their current number with them.

Other numbers will follow the same 1-2-3 pattern: for instance, personal numbers - your own 'number-for-life' and expected to be auctioned along with other special numbers - will start 811 for New T and T, 812 for Hutchison and 813 for New World, with 810 for Hongkong Telecom.

Rivalry between the firms has made them coy about giving away their plans. But telecommunications watcher John Ure of Hong Kong University expects them to concentrate on the business side, where the big money can be made.

Hutchison Communications and New T and T at least are thought to be planning to offer very high-speed data communications lines, particularly for businesses, for which Hongkong Telecom does not have the technology.

A Consumer Council spokesman, Kenneth So Wai-ming, said cheaper IDD rates could result, even though Hongkong Telecom would retain a monopoly on international calls until 2006.

Hongkong Telephone - the domestic arm of Hongkong Telecom - receives a cut of up to about 30 per cent of the cost of an international call for its contribution to putting the call through. The new companies will do the same - but may cut their profit to offer a cheaper call to the customer.

On the domestic side, the window for competition is small since Hongkong Telecom's calls are already free.