Switching mobile operators will be a much speedier process as of April next year, after Ofcom announced changes to the number-porting rules.
It currently takes up to five working days to switch a mobile phone number from one provider to another when changing operator but, from 1 April, 2008, that time will be reduced to just two days, the telecommunications regulator announced on Tuesday. The move follows a consultation at the end of last year.
"The UK was one of the first countries to introduce number portability and this has helped create a competitive mobile market," said Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom, on Tuesday. "However, the original process is now out of date. We believe that the industry should introduce a new system which will stimulate competition and encourage consumers to exercise choice between competing suppliers with a minimum of inconvenience."
That "new system" does not stop with the two-day rule. According to a spokesperson, Ofcom is still not happy with several aspects of the number-porting process and wants to introduce drastic changes to the system that could see numbers ported almost instantaneously. It has called for this to be achieved through the creation of a central database of all numbers that have been ported — a move that could also solve another problem identified by Ofcom in the current system.
If a mobile-phone user switches from one network to another, the calls they receive will still have to be routed from their old provider, meaning that anyone who has ever ported their mobile number is relying on their old provider to remain in existence.
"The main concern we have is that, if a provider was to go out of business, then consumers may be left without being able to receive calls," said Ofcom's spokesperson. "That actually happened a few years ago in the case of Atlantic Telecom. Former customers were left without being able to receive calls. A central database would ensure that calls are routed via that database rather than the former network."
While admitting that "the technical side of things hasn't been worked out yet" — it remains uncertain as to who would be responsible for holding the database, for example — Ofcom's spokesperson insisted that the database would not contain any numbers other than those that had been ported between operators. He also suggested that it would not contain "significant amounts of information" on the customers it listed. "We think it will allow operators to transfer numbers much more quickly than they can under the current regime," added the spokesperson, who claimed that use of the database could also help reduce the porting time to within two hours.
The regulator is proposing a timetable for these changes which will see the central database up and running and populated by the end of 2008, with operators routing calls directly to transferred mobile numbers via that database by the end of September 2009. A similar regime would be applied to transferred numbers on fixed networks by the end of 2012.
Ofcom is also proposing that the onus for number porting be shifted from the consumer to the operator they are joining. When switching operator, the consumer currently has to obtain a porting authorisation code (PAC) from their existing operator, and then call their new operator to give them the PAC. "We don't think that's fair on the consumer," said Ofcom's spokesperson. "They should just have to phone the provider they wish to move to and the new provider would push through the process on their behalf."