New COVID-19 emergency number for South Africa

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has issued a notice assigning the shortcode “139” to the national emergency COVID-19 hotline.

“The service code ‘139’ is mandated for COVID-19 national emergency services during the National State of Disaster,” ICASA stated in a government gazette dated 22 September.

“The Department of Health will be obliged to return the service code to the Authority within nine months after the termination of the National State of Disaster.”

The COVID-19 national emergency services centre can be accessed via phone call or SMS, and neither of these will incur any charges to the caller or sender.

No charges will be incurred between service providers, either, in line with regulations outlining emergency communication in the Disaster Management Act.

“There will be no origination or termination charges between electronic communications network service licensees for the mandated COVID-19 Short Code,” ICASA added.

The assignment of the COVID-19 shortcode follows after ICASA previously mandated the “111” shortcode for the national COVID-19 emergency hotline.

This shortcode, however, was already in use by Vodacom’s customer care centre, and there was subsequently a major conflict when it was implemented.

COVID-19 hotline mixup

The assignment of Vodacom’s active call centre number led to COVID-19 health communication centres being inundated with calls from Vodacom customers seeking assistance with their mobile products.

Following the problem, ICASA clarified that the original notice, published on 15 April, was done in line with Numbering Plan Regulations.

According to ICASA, the Numbering Regulations of 2016 harmonised the shortcode 135 for customer care services by all network operators.

In response, Vodacom said it was working with ICASA to come to a solution for all networks regarding the use of shortcodes, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it acknowledged the process was a challenge.

“Migration and allocation of shortcodes across all networks is a challenging process for customers and operators alike, largely due to customers being accustomed to using certain numbers over the last few decades,” Vodacom said.

“Vodacom will continue to engage ICASA to find appropriate solutions in this regard,” it added.

The full document mandating the 139 shortcode for the national COVID-19 emergency hotline is below.

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New COVID-19 emergency number for South Africa