By Ho Binh Minh
HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam is ringing in changes next month to make way for a standardized phone numbering plan, but is struggling to get through to businesses hung up on how much it will cost them.
The government abruptly announced changes to millions of phone numbers from March 1, keeping its business community on edge about forking out money to replace everything from shop front signage, banners on trucks and buses, and neon-lit taxi signs to business cards, letterheads, invoices and brochures.
"The cost for fixing the phone numbers is terribly high, but the invisible costs could be higher," said Nguyen Kim Khanh, an executive of Taxi Group, Hanoi's biggest cab company.
Taxi Group will need new signs and stickers on all 2,000 cabs in its fleet, but Khanh's worst fear is that regular clients may forget to update their cellphone address books.
"We're worried about customers who may switch to other cabs if their first call to us cannot connect," she said.
Cellphone usage is rising fast among Vietnam's 90 million population, two thirds of which is under 30. Active mobile numbers grew 12 percent last year to 138 million, reflecting a trend among the Vietnamese of having more than one handset in an expanding economy with a tech-savvy middle class.
In a country with five mobile phone operators, the change in phone numbers is part of a complex market restructuring process. Authorities say this will standardize existing numbers to make room for future growth, and they have no choice but to act now.
"Over these 50 years, the environment of telecoms business and telecoms technology has changed swiftly," Le Nam Thang, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications, said in a January directive announcing the changes.
All 11-digit mobile numbers are be shortened to 10 digits, with new area codes assigned to 59 of Vietnam's 63 provinces. The old numbers would work for a while during the transition period, but companies are gearing up for a cumbersome exercise.
"It's very much troublesome," said Pham Hai Yen, head of Hanoi's Hai Yen Travel Co, adding firms slow to react could suffer. "Companies are going to lose business advantage."
A separate government project to give each citizen a new identification number by 2020 is already causing bureaucratic headaches. Bank customers complain they're turned away by confused clerks or made to undergo verification procedures because their new ID numbers don't match records.
But the phone number changes are a godsend for Truong Tuan Nghia, whose printing firm is bracing for a deluge of orders.
"This is a huge opportunity for the printing industry," he said.
(Editing by Martin Petty and Tony Tharakan)