Ofcom's plan to speed up number porting derailed

Vodafone has won a court appeal against Ofcom's plan for a central database of mobile-phone numbers, aimed at reducing the time taken to port a number to a new carrier

An attempt by communications regulator Ofcom to reduce the amount of time it takes to port a phone number from one mobile network to another has been derailed in court, following an appeal by Vodafone and other operators.

In 2007, Ofcom announced it wanted to see the creation of a "common database" (CDB) of mobile-phone numbers, which it said would help numbers to be ported between networks in as short a time as two hours. Number porting allows a phone user to take their number with them when they decide to switch mobile service provider.

However, Vodafone— backed up by O2, T-Mobile and Orange —  filed an objection to the plan with the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT), arguing that Ofcom had not given a sufficient technical specification or accurate costing for the proposed database. On Thursday, the CAT handed down a judgement that found in favour of Vodafone. Ofcom's proposals have now been returned to the regulator for further analysis and revision.

The judgement was a "technical and legal decision that has somehow completely forgotten the consumer and is in danger of delaying the current process", Kevin Russell, chief executive of mobile company 3, said in a statement. The company, which is the smallest mobile carrier in the UK, backed Ofcom in the case.

"Ofcom is trying to achieve fast, hassle-free, mobile-number porting to give UK consumers flexibility and choice, but the incumbents have consistently put up roadblocks," Russell said. "This could force the delivery date [for two-hour porting] back from September 2009 into 2010. As with wholesale prices and international roaming charges, the big four operators do everything they can to keep prices high and work to slow down moves by the UK and EC regulators to increase choice and make the market more competitive."

The database proposed by Ofcom would let a customer switch carriers without their subsequent calls having to be routed via the operator they had left. Instead, the calls would simply come straight through via the new carrier, thanks to that company being able to interrogate the common database.

As things currently work, the operator who lost the customer's business gets to levy a small charge to the new carrier for routing such calls. That means there is a cost to the new carrier for each new customer who keeps their number. Ofcom also argued that longer portability times were a dissuading factor for customers contemplating switching networks.

In the tribunal, Vodafone and the other major networks argued that, in the time leading up to Ofcom's 2007 decision, the regulator had not given them a proper technical specification for the database. That meant they were not able to provide accurate advice to Ofcom on costing. Ofcom argued that these networks had been reticent in co-operating with its decision-making process.

The CAT decided that Ofcom had not carried out its consultation transparently and effectively, and therefore set aside the Ofcom 'decision' that the CDB should be created. It did not make a judgement on the issue of two-hour number portability, as this rested on the database's creation.

In his statement, 3's Russell referred to the number-porting process in Ireland, where he said: "Vodafone, 3 and O2 customers… have been able to move their mobile number between operators in around 20 minutes for many years". The CAT judgement addressed this point, noting that characterising the Irish situation this way was a "significant over-simplification… given other delays to the process, prior to the initiation of the electronic porting activity".

Ofcom will "reconsider its decision on 'Telephone number portability for consumers switching suppliers', dated 29 November, 2007", the regulator said in a statement on Friday.

"Ofcom is giving careful consideration to the CAT judgement and is considering next steps," the regulator said. "Ofcom remains committed to delivering improvements to the current fixed and mobile-number portability arrangements and will consider, in co-operation with industry stakeholders, how best to take this policy forward in the light of the CAT judgment."

A Vodafone spokesperson told ZDNet.co.uk on Friday that the operator was "very pleased that CAT agreed… that [Ofcom's] suggestion wasn't properly costed and thought-through".

"The overall benefits for our customers weren't justified by the costs to [the operators]," Vodafone's spokesperson said. "The money we might have spent on this [database's creation] can now go into products and services that will benefit the customers. We don't have a problem with number portability and are supportive, but it needs to be a properly consulted and thought-through solution."

Vodafone's spokesperson added that the operators themselves were currently working towards the creation of such a database.