If you receive a call that starts with “4” or “7” starting from next year, don’t panic: it is not likely to be a phone scam claiming to be from the Liaison Office and asking you for a money transfer.
The caller is simply using a new SIM card in a city that is facing a shortage of mobile phone numbers, let alone auspicious numbers.
The numbers “4” and “7” are not exactly lucky symbols in Chinese as “3” and “8”, but an ongoing public consultation tells us that these are the new number blocks in the eight-digit era.
As of March 1, 2015, there were 5.14 million unused mobile phone numbers, the Telecommunications Regulatory Affairs Advisory Committee said in a paper released in April.
But the monthly mobile phone consumption rate is 145,000, which means that more than 1.7 million new numbers are taken every year.
If this rate continues, we shall be out of available mobile phone numbers by February 2018.
Why a city with a population of only seven million is about to face an acute shortage of mobile phone numbers is not hard to comprehend.
When we adopted the eight-digit system in 1995, we first used the series that starts with “9”, then “8”, then “6” and now “5”.
According to local reports, the number of phone numbers allocated to telecom operators has reached 23.4 million, of which 16 million were occupied as of last year.
Thanks to the availability of smartphones, an increasing number of Hong Kong residents have a second phone – a Blackberry paid by the office, one for use on the mainland by those who frequently cross the border, or one for other uses like communicating with a secret lover.
(We don’t include in the count the old Nokia phones you still have in your drawers.)
On top of that, there are some 50 million travelers coming to Hong Kong every year and they may look for a local SIM card that allows them to use Facebook anytime.
And that are also people who buy dual SIM cards (one card, two numbers) for the other number to be used when they travel abroad.
Of course, SIM cards for tourists can be recycled and pager numbers can be reused.
But what will happen after 2018?
Some people think that in just 10 years’ time, Hong Kong will be integrated into the Chinese system and we will all be migrating to a 10-digit mobile phone number.
This could be big headache for people who have a hard time remembering their own eight-digit phone number.
Yes, the smart phonebook or voice call app may help, but perhaps old folks can have a crash course on how to improve their memory for the two additional digits.
The China-Hong Kong integration in terms of mobile services could come much faster than any form of political reform.
At present, there are four major telcos who own a 3G license, one of which, China Mobile, is a state-owned company.
In 10 years’ time, I wonder, how many will be left in the hands of Hong Kong business?
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