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UK faces long wait for faster number porting

How Ofcom fluffed the paperwork

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Comment Vodafone has blocked Ofcom's proposal to reform the UK number portability system, citing errors in the regulator's paperwork and methodology rather than any failing in the proposal itself.

With the proposal now lost somewhere between court and quango, UK consumers continue to be stuck with a number porting system that seems to benefit no-one except the established mobile cos.

The case has been before the Competition Appeals Tribunal for the last six months or so, and has been concerned with how Ofcom reached its conclusions, rather than any disagreement with them. Vodafone, backed by every mobile operator except 3, successfully argued that Ofcom has failed to fulfil its own requirements for robustness of evidence, relying on overestimated figures rather than establishing them securely, thus rendering its conclusions invalid. (Full judgment pdf.)

In the UK mobile phone numbers are issued to companies, which keep them forever. When a customer ports his number to a different provider (known as the "recipient network") his old provider (known as the "donor network") continues to manage that number - forwarding incoming calls to the recipient network and collecting a fee for every minute forwarded. The donor network also sets the termination fee charged to incoming calls, though that fee is (largely) passed on to the recipient network.

This arrangement suits the incumbent operators very well - you damn your provider and walk away, but they continue to make money on every call you receive, as long as you keep your number. As a smaller player 3 is more often the recipient network than the donor - thus its unmitigated support for better portability and provision of legal support to Ofcom in the appeal.

Ofcom would like to see a central database of phone numbers to which all the operators subscribe. This model is used successfully in many countries. Even in the UK many operators, including Vodafone, already "trap" outgoing calls to numbers they know have been ported to their network to avoid paying the donor network for routing. Ofcom argued that such trapping systems prove that a central database is technically simple to implement.

Vodafone's case was based on the argument that the cost-effectiveness of the database was not the issue, but the problem was that Ofcom had failed to provide evidence that stood up to "profound and rigorous" scrutiny, so its conclusion that the benefits of such a system exceed the cost cannot be trusted.

Another issue is that while figures are available on what proportion of numbers have been ported - around five per cent a year - no one knows how many of those have been ported back to their original network, or how many more punters would port their numbers if it only took a couple of hours. Ofcom based its calculations on a worst-case scenario, when it should have used empirical evidence.

Ofcom also failed, according to the tribunal, to properly specify the database, making cost estimates impossible.

So now the whole deal has been thrown back to Ofcom for reconsideration, and this time the regulator is going to have to work with the operators to draw up the cost-benefit analysis and database specifications. This is likely to give the incumbents limitless opportunities to delay things well into the next century. ®

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