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Tesco VoIP takes numbers to the grave

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Customers of Tesco's recently-demised VoIP service are being told they've lost their numbers, as number-portability is more of a recommendation than a requirement in the fixed world.

Tesco announced it would shut down its Internet Phone service last month, though the service will still work for another week.

But customers asking to move their numbers are being told that it can't be done, despite portability being an Ofcom requirement "where technically feasible", and the numbers in question being lodged with Cable & Wireless.

Tesco's Internet Phone service was handled by Freshtel UK, whose demise prompted Tesco to drop the service. The phone numbers issued to Tesco customers came from Freshtel UK, now out of the picture, with Cable & Wireless routing the calls to Freshtel and thus having no responsibility for the end customers. So there's no one available to forward the calls and the numbers are now orphaned.

Phone numbers in the UK, both fixed and mobile, are issued to companies, which own them forever. If you port your number, calls are still routed to your old network, and that network then forwards the call to your new one. But if your old network goes titsup then it can no longer forward calls, so the number can't be ported.

The same thing happened with some Skype numbers a couple of years back, though competitor Voipfone was eventually able to get hold of the numbers and offer them back to their owners. This time around, Voipfone has managed to get unlock codes for the Tesco Internet Phone handsets, but with Freshtel UK gone the numbers are lost.

"Due to the closure of our partner Freshtel's UK business, number portability is not technically feasible", Tesco told us. Ofcom's rules on telephony mandate providers make provision for number portability, but only where "technically feasible", so the clause lets everyone off the regulatory hook.

Mobile number portability works the same way, but with only five companies, so it's easier to keep track of. There are more than 400 companies with number allocations in the UK, so no one can have forwarding agreements with all of them. Customers who value their VoIP numbers have to take responsibility for checking who's actually holding the numbers.

ITSPA (Internet Telephony Services Providers' Association) membership is a good start, though it's worth checking if the number wholesaler is also a member. ITSPA won't promise that its members provide portability, but told us that if both the provider and the wholesaler is a member then they should be able to help. Freshtel's membership lapsed a few years back, and neither Tesco nor Cable & Wireless have ever been members.

Clearly, fixed number portability is a mess, "a truly dreadful system" as Voipfone CEO Colin Duffy describes it, which makes it even more worrying that Ofcom recently decided that the same system should continue to be used for mobile numbers.

A single database of numbers is the obvious solution to both fixed and mobile number portability, but such an arrangement does nothing for the biggest incumbents who have the greatest lobbying power. As customers we just have to hope our provider doesn't go titsup and take our number down with them. ®

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