Once upon a time, a call made to “directory enquiries” by dialling 192 on your phone was free. In the 1990s, BT started charging 25p per call, and this rose to 40p by 2002. At that time, this was already considered a rip-off – an understandable reaction to something which previously cost nothing. The service was discontinued shortly afterwards. To replace it, the 118 numbers appeared. Whereas BT operated 192, any company could start a 118 service. And they did.
The most popular service today is 118 118, widely advertised with those two long-haired and moustachioed blokes, and which was successfully sued a few years ago by David Bedford (a British athlete from the early 70s) for stealing his image.
Before the internet – indeed, at a time when some houses still had gaslights, and many still had outside toilets – directory enquiries was an important service. It was a good way of finding someone’s phone number from their name and/or address, and I used it a few times in my youth. I remember that the operators were very helpful and adept at nailing the number you were after, even if the information you had was quite vague. However, by the time BT started charging for the service, I was on the internet and could find numbers myself. That was over 25 years ago, so it amazes me that anyone today should still need such services as 118 118. But apparently, they do.
I suppose we should be grateful that human longevity is what it is, otherwise we’d all still be wearing clothes made on Jacquard looms, riding Penny Farthings (albeit, clad in Lycra) to work, and I’d probably be giving lessons on how to drive a horse and carriage. Because it seems that more than 2% of the population still uses directory enquiries (more than 4% if they’re over 65). That’s a lot of people.
As I said, 192 calls cost 40p at the time the service was shutdown, and people were unhappy even then. Well, it seems that current 118 services cost as much as £20 per call, with 118 118 charging over £11, and even the cheapest providers charging between £1-£3. Those with the highest profiles – 118 118, Hello Maureen, Yell – are the worst offenders.
The funny thing is that the media was going on about this exact same thing over a year ago, where it was pointed out that 118 operators were free to charge up to £24 per call. The BBC even used the same photo in the article then that they have used in this latest story.
For me, the need for directory enquiries was pretty much gone right when I jumped on to the web. Over 25 years down the line it should be gone for everyone. I mean, you can even talk to your computer or phone (or Alexa) and ask it for a number these days, and unlike the phone services – which are apparently surly and unhelpful – you can ask the question in different forms again and again until you get a result. If you do this, there are no rip offs to worry about in the first place.