VoIP number porting as a problem has been brought to the fore this year as Cable & Wireless and Tesco closed down their services. In the case of the former it was the service of one of its acquired businesses and Tesco were let down by Australian provider Freshtel who retrenched to their home market.
Both sets of customers had a torrid time trying to find new homes for their services and numbers. This was because there were no porting agreements in place for either service provider.
At the recent Parliament and Internet Conference a C&W/Thus customer Gareth Jamie of eoffice turned up to tell the audience of the problems he had had. It took him 45 days to find a new home for his VoIP and £10k of credits for unhappy customers of his managed workspace business.
This is a measurable effect of the problem which is that whilst the larger telcos will happily port numbers between themselves there are a further 300 or so small operators with their own number ranges with who they don’t have porting agreements. What’s more it is a pain in the proverbial for a company like BT to arrange a number port with a smaller company. It takes a minimum of three months in contract setup and agreement to then find that the porting is mostly one way, for only a few numbers and that the ITSP concerned is potentially a start-up with a strong likelihood of not being around in years to come.
The problem is compounded for the industry in that these three hundred small businesses with their own number ranges make very inefficient use of the UK’s scarce telephone numbering resource. For a given area code if the hundreds of allocated blocks may often only have a few numbers used. And we are running out of numbers in many area codes.
There is more. It isn’t only a turgid contractual process that inhibits number porting. The physical process is manual and antiquated. Alexander Graham Bell himself would have recognised it.
Because of this BT has thousands of numbers in their queue for porting at anyone time and they apparently port hundreds of thousands of these numbers each year between their larger peers. All parties concerned think the whole process needs sorting out but have to move at the speed of the slowest. You can guess who that is.
BT is not in a hurry to make number porting simpler because not only are they by and large going to be the losing party they will also notionally have to spend large sums of money upgrading their exchanges in order to do so. BT has already put a hold on investment in 21CN telephony. There is little chance of progress.
There is an answer and that is a centrally managed number porting database with a single contract between each ITSP and that database. Numbers would be handed in to this central source and handed out as required. This would solve the scarcity issue. The posting of services and numbers would be a straightforward activity that could be handled very quickly – inside a day say instead of the current “up to 45 days or never”.
The technology required to do this is ENUM based and already exists. The fact that BT et al might not immediately want to get involved should not be a hurdle to finding a solution. it should be possible to come up with a way forward that allows a new porting system to live as an overlay to the old world.
The problem is that when this was looked at last year by an industry consortium led by Gamma Telecom they came up with a figure of £500k required to set up the system. Because most companies involved are small in or close to start up phase they don’t have the money in hand to splash out on this.
The ITSP community needs to find a way forward here and it has to make it happen. The new VoIP world beckons but there are hills to climb in the struggle to reach the sunlit uplands.
PS sorry about that last sentence 🙂
PPS Timico has delegated porting to our wholesale partners to maximise the number of entities with whom we can port. There are still many ITSPs out in the wilderness.