Sorry, wrong number

All over Cardiff a not particularly important but still highly irritating misconception is rampant. The city’s area dialling code is 029, yet Cardiff phone numbers are incorrectly formatted everywhere you look; on shop fronts, on commercial vehicles, on business cards, on websites, in junk mail flyers and in newspaper advertisements. Incorrectly placed pauses are also heard in speech, whether in radio and TV ads, by call centre or office workers misquoting their own phone number or by acquaintances down the local pub.

Let’s use as an example the Council’s C2C (‘Connect to Cardiff’) phone number, which is 029 2087 2087 – the area code followed by eight numbers (frequently divided into two blocks of four for convenience). It is not, to utilise the way so many businesses and individuals wrongly express their phone numbers, 02920 872087. The error is in thinking that Cardiff’s code is 02920.

Why does this mistake occur? Answering that question calls for a quick canter through the history of UK dialling codes. Before 1958, phoning anybody anywhere could only be done via the operator in the nearest telephone exchange. This entailed dialling 0 to get through to the local exchange, telling the operator the town and the phone number and waiting for her (and it always was a ‘her’) to connect you. In 1958 this all changed with the introduction of the STD system, standing for Subscriber Trunk Dialling (not Sexually Transmitted Disease, I hasten to add), in which every city, town or rural area was allocated its own code and numbers could now be dialled directly. The codes were based on 0 (simultaneously the operators’ number, still needed for other functions, was changed to 100) followed by the numbers corresponding to the first two letters of the place on the phone dial. Therefore, for instance, Cardiff = CA = 22 = 022 and Newport = NE = 63 = 063, as per the standard circular rotary dial pictured below.

At this juncture individual phone numbers for a city the size of Cardiff had five digits. So, for example, if you were phoning Cardiff Council at City Hall from within Cardiff back in, say, 1960 one would have dialled 31033, and if phoning from outside Cardiff it would have been 022 31033.

As demand for telephones grew exponentially, ever more telephone numbers were required. The Post Office (responsible for the service since 1912) temporarily solved the problem by adding an extra digit at the front of each individual phone number. In Cardiff this process began in the 1970s, turning the five digits into six by inserting a number from 1 to 9.

The privatisation of telecommunications in the 1980s was the very first of the Thatcher government’s privatisations. The British Telecom brand was introduced in 1980, it became independent of the Post Office in 1981 and was fully privatised in 1984 (consequences 40 years later: 100,000 jobs lost; vast salary increases for bosses; fat dividends for shareholders; bills quadrupled in real terms; standards of service dismantled; monopoly on phone lines and exchanges untouched).

In 1990, all the UK’s STD codes (by now renamed area codes) were given an extra digit to free up more numbers as demand kept on increasing; thus Cardiff’s code became 0222. Then in 1995 all UK area codes changed again with the insertion of a 1 after the initial zero, making Cardiff’s code 01222. Although this only lasted five years before the 029 code was introduced in 2000, the notion of a five-digit area code somehow embedded itself, probably because the mass arrival of mobile phones of no fixed abode that didn’t require a code rapidly rendered the landline redundant, if not obsolete. And, given that calling a landline from a mobile always requires the area code even within the same city, the divide between the code and the individual phone number became irrelevant, making a Cardiff landline number called from a mobile a sequence of 11 digits regardless of code niceties.

This became a particular issue in those places where the new codes were three-digit: London (020); Portsmouth & Southampton (023); Coventry (024); Northern Ireland (028); and Cardiff with its 029. People found it hard to get their heads around these shortened new codes, especially as nearly everywhere else still had a five-digit code (eg: Newport 01633, Barry 01446, etc). What’s more, most of the time it didn’t matter unless calling landline to landline within Cardiff and incorrectly assuming 02920 rather than 029 were the numbers that could be dropped – in which case the nincompoop would be phoning a non-existent number. A recent survey in London found that 60% of people didn’t know the city’s correct phone code and, going by the number of businesses I see that display a misconceived phone number, I hazard a guess that Cardiff’s level of ignorance would be even higher.

Mind you, the fact that landlines now seem to be the sole preserve of scammers, cold-callers, robbers, defrauders and automated bots means that I hardly ever bother to answer an incoming call and virtually never use it to make an outgoing call. In fact the only reason I still have one is because, apparently, it’s still required for an internet connection. The moment I can get the bloody thing disconnected I certainly will. And then those long, intimate, involving phone conversations with close friends that were such a major part of my life from teenage years right up until recently will be finally over…beep…beep…beep…

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