Ofcom takes action to avoid mobile number shortage fears


Almost 400 million UK-issued numbers now inactive or dormant; new proposals may include recycling deactivated numbers and financial penalties

Ofcom is holding discussions with operators in a bid to reduce the 21 million* mobile phone numbers deactivated or left dormant in the UK each year.

According to the regulator, SIM allocations have now surpassed 470 million since 1997 – around seven times the UK population – but only a fraction of those remain active today.

A spokesperson told Mobile News it has now begun discussions with UK operators, which have a combined customer base of around 77.7 million customers, as part of its new “mobile management project” that was launched last month.


It warned the growth of M2M, such as smart metering, could lead to a shortage unless a more “efficient” method of issuing and recycling mobile phone numbers to customers is found.

The Ofcom spokesperson said: “Mobile operators have an obligation to use numbers allocated to them effectively and efficiently.

“We are working with them to gain further understanding of their recycling programmes and to investigate any opportunities to increase their efficiency.

“The main aim of the project is to establish whether we have sufficient mobile numbers for future use, particular in the M2M sector, as those machines may need mobile numbers.”

Ofcom revealed there are currently no specific rules on how operators should manage mobile numbers.


Proposed measures may include setting specific guidelines on how to recycle and “sterilise” inactive inactive numbers. Ofcom may also propose charging operators for mobile numbers –they are currently free – in a bid to curb wastage.

An investigation by  Mobile News revealed O2, Vodafone, EE and Three have to date requested a total of 444.5 million phone numbers since 1997 – with the remaining 26 million going to MVNO’s such as Lebara, Virgin and BT.


Mobile numbers are dispatched in 100,000 number “blocks” at the request of the operators.

Our findings show O2 (and its previous brand identities) has so far received around 152.3 million numbers (including M2M) – but just 15.4 per cent (23.4 million) of those are active today.

Similarly, EE (which includes Orange, T-Mobile and previous brand identities) has around 133.6 million SIMs, with only 20.6 per cent (27.5 million) of those being active.

Three has so far been given 77.7 million numbers but only 10.8 per cent (7.8 million) are active today.

Vodafone is currently the most efficient, with 22 per cent (19 million) of the 86.5 million numbers it has still active.

EE confirmed it does send out free SIM cards with mobile numbers regardless of whether the card has been activated, but said it did this because customers demanded it of them.

It added that Orange prepay plans are the exception to this policy: with numbers allocated only after the SIM has been activated.

“We do send out SIMs with active numbers, as it reduces the process to switch on a new SIM further down the line, something customers were repeatedly asking us to do.

“Occasionally this leads to dormant numbers, but these are not ‘counted’ as live, until calls are being made or data used. This applies mainly in the prepay market,” EE said.

Similarly, O2 confirmed it sends out free prepay SIM cards with assigned mobile numbers regardless of whether it has been activated.

However, with contract customers it only allocates numbers once the contract begins.

It recovers numbers after six months if they have not been used (made or received a call, text, or used data).

Three said it sends out SIM cards with mobile numbers allocated. It is however reviewing its mobile number allocation process in the second half of 2014.

Vodafone declined to comment.

*Figures based on annual averages since 1997, dividing 370m by 17 (years).


  1. Are there any updates on this effort? Has Ofcom made any decisions about policies to help manage numbers to ensure they don’t run out?