Louise Lancaster is a communications lawyer specialising in interconnect, regulation and public affairs. Having qualified as a solicitor in 1994, Louise held a variety of legal, regulatory and public policy roles in the telecoms industry before forming Ayres End Consulting in 2003. She now provides commercial, strategic and compliance advice to communications providers and trade associations. Her website is at http://www.ayres-end.com/.
It is widely accepted that the routing of calls to ported numbers in the UK is based on an antiquated process. Calls to ported numbers are required to route via the original Range Holder, and then onward to the current service provider (rather than being directly routed to the current SP). To achieve this, the Range Holder and the new service provider must engage in drawn out negotiations to agree conveyance charges and routing plans. These typically take six months to a year, but can take longer.
If I wish to change my service provider I will not want the move to be delayed by an inability to port my number. But if I am to port my number to the service provider of my choice, I cannot do so unless my current service provider (and the original Range Holder if not the same) has porting arrangements already established with my new service provider.
In Ofcom’s General Conditions of Entitlement, GC 18 imposes two different obligations on communications providers. The first is the obligation on CPs to provide “number portability” to their own subscribers (GC 18.1). The second is to provide “Porting” on request to other communications providers “as soon as is reasonably practicable” (GC 18.2). In order to be able to comply with GC 18.1, most CPs try and get in place as many porting contracts as they can, so that they are ready to port a customer’s number when requested. If the relevant commercial arrangements are not in place, then the customer will either have to wait, or will tire of waiting and will go elsewhere. Because of this, UK porting processes can act as a real barrier to competition.
It is therefore crucial that Ofcom is ready to enforce the requirements of GC18 against any CP who refuses to agree to a Porting request from another CP. The problem is that there are now hundreds of CPs with their own number ranges and the work involved in setting up all the necessary commercial arrangements is adding a huge and disproportionate cost to doing business as a CP. The sheer volume of porting agreements being negotiated also means that a growing number of complaints and disputes are being laid at Ofcom’s door.
The work involved for Ofcom staff in investigating all these complaints is a strain on their resources, and so they are tending to abdicate responsibility. They will not usually enforce General Condition 18.2 unless there is evidence of an end user waiting to port. But this makes a mockery of the obligation to offer timely number portability to end users. If you wait until there is a customer request, the customer will have to wait about a year to move their service.
The UK government is currently working on transposing the European Commission’s amended Universal Service Directive into UK law. This new Directive requires that CPs port numbers within one working day. With the current UK porting process, it will be impossible to comply with this law unless as many porting arrangements as possible are in place between CPs.
So Ofcom needs to make a choice: either put the necessary resources into enforcing the obligation to offer Porting upon request, or (preferably) recognise that porting processes need a complete overhaul. Ofcom should mandate the introduction of a central database which CPs can use to route calls efficiently to the correct terminating operator. This would be an appropriate solution for the 21st century.