24 APRIL 2002

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When six becomes eight

Marika Azzopardi speaks to Joseph Cuschieri - Chief of Operations Manager at the Malta Communications Authority – about the MCA’s long bid to modernise the numbering of Malta’s telephone systems, the results of which are to cemented on 1 May when the new numbering plan becomes effective

The increasing popularity of mobile telephony does not appear to have lessened the popularity of fixed line telephony to a large extent, according to Joseph Cuschieri - Chief of Operations Manager at the Malta Communications Authority.

Proof of this is the stability of approximately 220,0000 fixed-line subscribers throughout Malta and Gozo. Mr Cuschieri explains, "Mobile telephony has lessened traffic within the fixed telephone line system. That much is true. But fixed lines have experienced only a minor and negligible decrease, which is barely discernible within the whole system."

Since being set up on 1 January 2001, the Malta Communications Authority has been working on a new strategy – the creation of an eight digit system within fixed line telephony, which would put Malta on a par with other countries.

"There was much confusion owing to a variety of digital formulations. Some were six digits, such as the normal telephone numbers; others were eight digits, such as the freephone numbers still others were voice mail access numbers with seven digits. These will all be eventually changed into eight digit numbers."

But for the moment the MCA is concentrating on the biggest hurdle – that of changing the country’s normal telephone numbers from six to eight digits.

The project began in earnest in April 2001, following consultations with Danish consultants who were engaged to assist in the project, which had to be realised from scratch. To this end the MCA had formed a steering group.

Mr Cuschieri recalls, "This was composed of mainly technical staff. Employees from Maltacom, Vodafone and Go Mobile, together with MCA employees, including myself and the Chairman of the Authority." Co-ordination was the order of the day within this steering group, as all resources were required in order to help create the smoothest changeover possible. However, what may be perceived by the public as requiring merely a slight change within an established system, is, in fact, a major change backed up by the re-programming of all software and various technical alterations which require time and research to be up and running.

"The steering group was immensely successful and I must say that all co-ordination within the exercise was very smooth. The work is now in its final phase and in just a few days the entire system will be functioning to provide the required service," Mr Cuschieri adds.

Mr Cuschieri described how the MCA is striving to implement its new numbering project, which should see six-digit telephone numbers phased out by the end of this month.

The addition of the two digits ‘21’ prior to the established six digits which are still currently in use, will come into effect on 1 May 2002. The new numbering system has been created to offer ample capacity for the provision of further numbers within the system.

"Such changes are required also in order to accommodate the eventual changes of the telephony system market, which will be fully liberalised as from 1 January 2003. We had to offer a number capacity to accommodate the competitive environment which will surely become reality."

“The old system did not offer a numbering capacity wide enough to be able to offer operators the possibility of applying for a block of numbers, in line with international numbering conventions. "The system is such that an operator will ask to apply for a block of numbers to use within its communications system, much like a company requests a block of numbers to use as a bar code."

The MCA also wanted to create a uniform system that would be in line with the international system, with the eventual target of finally establishing a connecting network in which all other lines will eventually be using an eight-digit system.

However, the process of preparing the general public for the change has been ongoing since last October. "We began informing subscribers about the change through a publicity campaign. Half-way through the campaign, last February, we requested statistics from Maltacom, Vodafone and Go Mobile, who informed us about the number of subscribers who used the ‘21’ digits to make their phone calls through their system."

It transpired that only 13 per cent of these callers actually used the ‘21’ system, but as Mr Cuschieri pointed out, this does not mean that people are not aware of the existence of this change.

From the results of another survey, the Malta Communications Authority had found that 45 per cent of callers were not using the new system and that 47 per cent were not aware of the date of its launch. But a full 100 per cent of the callers were conscious of the imminent change. "We are aware that people opt to use the old system to get in touch, practically out of habit. It is a method we are all accustomed to using for quite a number of years now. However, as from next month, all callers will have no option but to include the ‘21’ digits to make their call."

Mr Cuschieri confirmed that for the first three months, a voice message will be in place to inform callers who have forgotten to include the ‘21’ digits, as a reminder to jog people’s memories and to get the new system up and going as efficiently as possible.

A new scientifically researched survey is due to have its results announced at the end of this month. The Malta Communications Authority will then present its report on the entire changeover proceedings on 30 April, the eve of the beginning of the new system.

 



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Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
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