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A Three-digit Number for Non-Emergency Healthcare Services

Proposals for the number and tariff; including notification of a proposed modification to General Condition 17

Executive Summary

1.1 Ofcom (The Office of Communications) is undertaking this consultation in order to meet a request from the Department of Health ("DH") in England for the designation of a three-digit telephone number to access NHS non-emergency healthcare services in England. The aim of the service to be provided via the number is to act an entry point for patients seeking NHS services: trained call-handlers will respond to requests for health or service information (whether urgent of not) and assess the medical needs of callers to identify which NHS services are best place to meet those needs.

1.2 The three-digit telephone number will initially be piloted in a number of Strategic Health Authority ("SHA") areas in England from spring 2010 but the intention is for the service to be fully rolled out across England in the long-term, subject to a positive evaluation of those pilots. The DH has decided on the underlying policy behind the service and this consultation relates only to the communications issues, for which Ofcom has responsibility.

1.3 The devolved administrations may also consider whether to introduce the three-digit number with a similar or comparable service in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. However, given that this consultation is based on a DH initiative, we have focussed on the proposed service as envisaged in England and have referred to the devolved administrations where appropriate.

1.4 As the regulator responsible for communications matters in the UK, including the administration of the UKs numbering resource, we have been asked by the DH to make a three-digit telephone number available for the delivery of its proposed non-emergency healthcare service. In order to make such number available for use by all communications providers, we would need to add it to the list of numbers in General Condition 17 of the General Conditions of Entitlement, which covers the allocation, adoption and use of telephone numbers (the "Numbering Condition").

1.5 The DH has chosen 111 as its preferred number for the service. We advised the DH on available number options, including full length numbers from existing ranges in the National Telephone Numbering Plan (the "Numbering Plan"). The DH considered these options and decided that a three-digit number (similar to the 999 and 112 numbers used by the emergency services, and the 101 non-emergency number initiated by the Home Office) would be the most suitable choice. It concluded that, of the possible three-digit numbers available, 111 was its preferred option.

1.6 While the DH is committed to the provision of the proposed service on a three-digit number, other options are available. The purpose of this document, therefore, is to seek stakeholders views on the DHs preferred and alternative numbering options, and to set out why the DH has chosen the three-digit number 111 for its proposed service.

1.7 As regards to the tariff for the number, three-digit numbers have no inherent tariff structure. The DH plans to implement the tariff for the number through negotiation with the selected service provider and communications providers. The DH has drawn up potential tariff options and we have set out these options on behalf of the DH. We do not propose to intervene in setting the tariff for the number and this consultation does not therefore propose regulatory measures on the matter of call charges. As the tariff will not be regulated, each tariff option could vary depending on the operator, and the price will depend on the commercial arrangements of each operator. The DH has pointed out that experience with 101 (the three-digit number initiated by the Home Office) showed that negotiation with telecoms providers can result in the same call charge across virtually all operators. Nevertheless, as the call charge will be a commercial decision by each provider, we will keep open the option to revisit the tariff issue at a later stage if it proves appropriate. If it is necessary for us to consider regulatory measures on the tariff in the future, we would need to carry out a further consultation on the specific issues and proposals.

1.8 The main body of this document sets out the background of the proposed service and a discussion on the options for the number and tariff. Section 4 also contains an impact assessment which evaluates the different options for the number. In addition, Annex 8 contains a draft notification of the necessary modification to the Numbering Condition in order to designate 111 for "Access to NHS Non-Emergency Healthcare Services" (Type A Access Code).

1.9 We invite comments on the draft notification, the specific consultation questions we have set out, as well as on the issues raised generally in this consultation document, by 20 August 2009.

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