U.K. Wants Faster Mobile Number Switching

Ofcom has published new proposals for speeding up number-porting times—the time it takes a mobile-phone user to transfer their phone number from one operator to another.

Number-porting currently takes up to two days in the UK. Last year, an attempt by the telecoms regulator to shorten this process failed, with operators claiming Ofcom had not properly costed its proposals.

Ofcom launched two new consultations on Monday. The first consultation relates to the Porting Authorisation Code (PAC)—the code that a user needs to get from their old operator and pass on to their new operator for their number to be transferred. Ofcom would like to get rid of this procedure, and make it the new operator's responsibility to deal with the old operator.

According to a statement from the regulator, this would lead to "a more immediate process managed by the customer's new provider" and make the transfer more convenient for a "significant minority" of users. Ofcom said it is aiming for the transfer to take from two hours to one day.

The UK is almost unique in Europe in using PACs, as most other countries already put the onus on the new provider to handle the process, according to Ofcom.

The second consultation covers the related issue of what happens to calls made to the user once their number has been ported. When one operator's customer calls another operator's customer, the second operator charges the first operator a 'termination rate'. The four big mobile operators—O2 (TEF), Vodafone (VOD), T-Mobile (DT) and Orange (FTE)—all charge more or less the same termination rate. But as a relatively new entrant to the UK mobile market, 3 is allowed to charge a bit more.

However, when a customer has ported their number to a new provider, the customer's new operator receives only the termination rate that is set for the customer's old operator. For example, if 3 wins a customer from T-Mobile, it gets lower termination rates for calls made to the customer than it would if the customer had just joined 3 directly.

Ofcom wants to change this situation in favour of direct routing for mobile-to-mobile calls, so an operator that wins a customer does not have to see that customer's calls pass through the old operator's systems.

That proposal—originally made in 2007—requires the creation of a new, cross-operator database of mobile-phone numbers, and it was this element that sunk Ofcom's efforts in September last year. At that time, Vodafone successfully complained to the Competition Adjudication Tribunal (CAT) that Ofcom had not provided a proper technical specification for the database, nor had it correctly costed the new mechanism.

A spokesperson for Ofcom told silicon.com sister site ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the regulator's new proposals followed "detailed consumer research and a thorough cost-benefit analysis".

3's chief executive, Kevin Russell, last year described the CAT's decision as a "technical and legal decision that has somehow completely forgotten the consumer and is in danger of delaying the current process". The operator has welcomed Ofcom's latest proposals, saying in a statement on Monday that "the current system is outdated and fails both customers and competition".

"Reform is long overdue, so we welcome Ofcom's return to this issue," 3 said. "Ofcom recognised the failings of the current regime in 2007, and if other UK operators had not derailed the process on a technicality, consumers would have had fast, easy switching this month."

Vodafone's reaction to the new proposals was less enthusiastic.

"We are studying Ofcom's new proposals with interest but note Ofcom's own research shows that the majority of consumers are satisfied with the current process," the operator said in a statement on Monday.

"Our goal is a system that's convenient, works reliably and lets customers make informed decisions without compromising vital consumer safeguards against slamming, mis-selling and fraud. We are always open to ideas for genuine improvements, but they must give real customer benefits at a proportionate cost."