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What are they on about?

David Newnham dials M for murderous multiples

A chubby package landed on my doormat today. A late Christmas present? My party snaps back from the lab? A free mini adjustable spanner and propelling-pencil set from my bank ("Please accept this gift as a valued customer")?

In fact the package contained a smart socket. A smart socket, as smart readers will know, is a device that automatically appends a string of digits to the front of any telephone number I dial, thereby routing calls through some cost-cutting agency while sparing my button-poking finger additional wear and tear.

Even without the extra code, most numbers now consist of a nail-splitting 11 digits. Eleven digits? We've come a long way since Scotland Yard was Whitehall 1212. How did it get this crazy? I know there are heaps more phones now, but the fact remains that there are fewer than 60 million people in the country. So even if each woman, man, child and baby in the land had a telephone apiece, the longest UK number would only be eight digits long. And there would still be 39,999,99 lines up for grabs before we hit nine digits.

Increasing the number of digits to nine would mean there were 999 million lines available. And the chances are that many numbers you dialled would contain only a few digits anyway. Because if I'd been in charge of telecommunications in Year Zero, I'd have allocated numbers on a first-come, first-served basis, starting with 0 and working upwards. Any line falling into disuse would be allocated to the next new subscriber. Which would mean that you or I might easily have a phone number of three or four digits, and nobody would again have to dial 11 digits .

What's that you say? Do I really have no idea how a telephone exchange works? Am I a total ignoramus or am I just pretending?

Sorry. You are held in a queue and will be answered shortly.

In the meantime, permit me to point out that there are 6 billion people in the world, and if each of them had one telephone line, we still wouldn't have to dial 11 digits, even if newborn babies andI Hello? Hello?

It seems I've been cut off.

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