'Sorry, luv -- try ringing up tomorrow'

By

At the height of the London Times strike last year, an American journalist telephoned a Times official at his office. They had spoken before, and the journalist recognized that familiar voice when it answered.

There was only one trouble: The voice was not talking to him. The journalist had accidently hooked into a key conversation between the official and a union negotiator -- and overheard some very interesting things.

such wire crossings, no doubt, could happen anywhere. But in Britain, which has one of the world's largest telephone systems, everyone has tales of calls running amok. Strange callers asking for foreign-sounding names ring up at 2 a.m. Friends calling friends end up with corporate board rooms. callers tie into long silences, or into the BBC radio news. Or they get unceremoniously cut off -- as this correspont did while talking, of all things, to the telephone repair service.

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The telephone service also has difficulties with the phones themselves. Some have lightweight bodies and strong coil springs behind the dials. (push buttons are not common here yet.) Unless firmly grabbed, the phones go skating off across the desk when dialed. Englishmen have become adept at crooking up a shoulder to hold the receiver, while keeping both hands free to wrestle with the base.

Then, too, the phones have problems with noise suppressors. As they age, they let through more and more static, which sounds for all the world as though the caller's collar is on fire. The common cure: Pick up the base and slam it down hard on the desk. Or ask for a new suppressor, happily supplied and promptly installed.

What the mechanisms lack, the operators make for. Although at times hard to reach (this correspondent has waited 10 minutes for an international operator to answer), they are direct and friendly. It is reassuring to hear someone say. "Trying to connect you, love," while your call is going through.

Now, however, the system is coming in for what its director, Peter Benton, calls an "unprecedented" overhaul. On May 1 he announced an eight-point plan stretching over five years and costing $:1.5 billion ($3.38 billion) a year. He spoke of replacing the present electromechanical exchanges with electronic ones, of tackling international service problems, pay-phone quality, telephone reliability, and other trouble spots. His goal: to make Britain's system "the finest in the world."

Unlike its private-enterprise American counterpart, the telephone system here is part of the Post Office. But a bill to split the two will be introduced in Parliament next fall, and some observers suggest that partial "privatization" or denationalization of te telecommunications side could follow.

The Postal Service, in the eyes of many here. is steadily declining. Deliveries are gradually being reduced (although twice- daily deliveries are still common), and delays are becoming more frequent, according to the Post Office Users National Council.

By contrast, the telecommunications serkept the mail service afloat -- earning enough so that telephone modernization has been self-financing.

But that very success may have brought it to a governmental deaf ear. The relatively small figure of $:150 million ($3.38 million) -- which the telephone men seek to borrow for new equipment in addition to their cut of the 1980-81 Post Office telecommunications budget -- is said to be one of the reasons for the resignation of Sir William Barlow as Post Office chairman.

But the Post Office argues that new equipment should be purchased out of loans and paid for by attracting new subscribers -- instead of by raising the charges to the 17 million users already in the directories.

Meanwhile, the telephone service has problems keeping up with demand. Although it installed some 2 million phones last year, the average wait is about three months -- with 500,000 people on the waiting line.

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