Finally the decision has been made:

The telecommunications ministry announced on Wednesday that the only dialing code for Syria is (00963).

The telecommunications ministry reminds subscribers that starting Thursday morning, communications between Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic will be limited to the international code (00963),” Minister Jebran Bassil’s office said in a statement.

The code (02) will not be used anymore, it added.

Plans to end the 02 direct number to Syria originated in 2004 when the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications released the government policy and plans concerning the country’s telecom sector.

The following section might get a little technical and is based on research I had done in 2005 for a foreign embassy I was working for:

Lebanon’s telecommunications policy is based on four pillars:

Pillar One: Liberalization of Telecommunications

  • Creating Liban Telecom with a 5-year exclusivity
  • Licensing of mobile telecommunications operators
  • Licensing fixed wireless telephony operators to provide telecommunications services in rural areas upon the expiry of Liban Telecom’s exclusivity
  • Licensing additional operators to provide international voice telephony upon the expiry of Liban Telecom’s exclusivity in international voice telephony
  • Unbundling of local loop upon expiry of Liban Telecom’s exclusivity
  • Liberating other services

Pillar Two: Establishment of an Effective Regulatory Framework

  • Restructuring the sector
    • Redefining the responsibilities and powers of the Ministry of Telecommunications and the Minister
    • Establishing an effective Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA)
    • Establishing Liban Telecom (as a joint stock company)
    • Tender for the Management of two GSM Mobile Networks
    • Regularize the existing licenses for telecommunications service providers
  • Promoting competition in the sector
    • Licensing new operators
    • Guarding against anti-competitive behavior
    • Ensuring interconnection with operators with significant market power
    • Regulating tariffs
    • Prescribing account procedures and monitoring the market
    • Managing scarce resources efficiently and in a non-discriminatory manner

Pillar Three: Increasing private participation in telecommunication

  • Partial privatization of Liban Telecom
  • Regularizing the status of existing telecommunications providers

Pillar Four: Safeguarding social objectives

  • Universal provision of services
  • Consumer interests
  • Education, Health and Handicapped
  • National Security

So what does this have to do with dropping the 02 code? Prior to the release of this plan in 2004, the Lebanese government changed landline-to-landline tariffs, ensuring that the cost is fixed regardless of which area code you dial (i.e. calling your neighbor from your landline would cost the same as calling someone 150km away). Because of this, having area codes (01, 04, 05, etc.) became pointless.

That is why the government telecommunications plan focused on dropping the area codes and increasing phone numbers to 8 digits instead of the current 6.

The new numbering plan was approved by the Minister of Telecommunications, Jean-Louis Kordahi, on May 8, 2004 (Ministerial Decision Number 141/1). The new numbering plan is an 8-digit closed numbering plan as such there will be no requirement to dial 0 within Lebanon.

The National Destination Codes (NDCs) and leading digits of local numbers have been designated for specific services. Due to technical issues, the new numbering plan could take up to two years to complete. Under these constraints and in order to release new numbers for GSM networks and special services, implementation will be carried out in a phased approach:

Phase 1: Close the NP for geographical numbers by making the leading ‘0’ mandatory in all PSTN dialed numbers. Completed: January 2005
Phase 2: Initiate a progressive release of mobile numbers in the range ‘70’. Completed: June 2005
Phase 3: Migrate existing mobile numbers to 71-yyyyyy (systematic replacement of ‘03’ by ‘71’. Expected Completion: September 2005
Phase 4: Migrate current short codes (yyyy): shared cost services to digit ‘8’ and premium rate services to digit ‘9’. Expected Completion: Early 2006
Phase 5: Migrate geographical numbers to ‘2’. Expected Completion: Mid-to-Late 2006

During phases 1, 2 and 3:

  • The leading digit ‘0’ will be mandatory for all calls, i.e. within and between area codes.
  • Inbound international calls to geographical numbers will not change, i.e. the called number will be +961-x-yyyyyy, where x is the area code as currently used (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) and yyyyyy is the local number.
  • Inbound international calls to mobile phones will change from +961-3-yyyyyy to +961-7x-yyyyyy.

You can tell the timeframe didn’t hold true. Anyway in English, this is what is supposed to happen. Once implemented completely, you would no longer have the leading 0 at the beginning of numbers. So, if you phone number is 01-555555, it would be come 2155-5555. If you area code was 04, it would be come 24 which is the first two digits of your new number and so on. Mobile numbers would start with 7x (i.e. 70, 71, 72, etc.) which explains why you now have mobiles that start with that number. All 03 mobile numbers would be converted to the 7x format.

With this new system, the ministry will also deploy toll-free numbers in the format 8xxx-xxxx and premium cost numbers in format 9xxx-xxxx (similar to your 800 and 900 numbers in the US). If you are interested in finding out more, you can download the New Number Plan which would provide you additional details.