Operators abandon faster-porting group

Ofcom and 3 expressed dismay at the decision by major carriers to suspend the activities of UKPorting, which aimed to speed up the transfer of numbers between networks

A UK telecoms-industry group designed to speed up the porting of mobile-phone numbers between networks has decided to suspend its own operations, on the same day that the European Parliament voted to speed up number porting.

UKPorting, which includes the big mobile and fixed-line operators and operates under the auspices of Ofcom, voted on Wednesday that it need not continue its work for now. The decision was taken in the light of a judgement made last week by the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT), in which the tribunal agreed with Vodafone, T-Mobile, O2 and Orange that the regulator Ofcom had not properly costed its proposals for speeding up number porting.

Ofcom's proposals had aimed to speed up the transfer of numbers between networks that occurs when a consumer wishes to switch mobile carrier. This currently takes two days, but Ofcom wanted a common industry database created so that the process could take just hours instead. Ofcom also aimed to avoid the customer's new operator being charged by the abandoned operator for routing calls to it during that period.

Ofcom was backed in its failed proposals by the mobile company 3, which, as the smallest UK national carrier, stands to benefit most from customers being able to switch operator with minimum hassle. 3 issued a statement on Thursday in which it decried the decision to suspend UKPorting's activities.

"As we expected, the gang of four (Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile and Orange) have acted as one to halt the efforts to bring fast, easy network switching to UK mobile numbers," 3 said in the statement on Thursday. "They have used last week's ruling as an excuse to drag their heels further on mobile number porting. This will mean the continuation of operators behaving like desperate lovers spurned, trying to cling onto customers who want a fresh start, by pleading with them to stay and showering them with promises, rather than making the best deals available to all. 'I am a number, not a free man,' springs to mind."

Ofcom also expressed disappointment at the UKPorting decision, although it refused to name the companies that had voted for the suspension. "We are disappointed that some operators have decided not to progress with UKPorting, the industry organisation that was set up with the remit of improving the process of porting telephone numbers when moving suppliers," the regulator said in a statement on Thursday. "This is especially disappointing given the progress that industry had already made through co-operation."

"In light of this, we will now move quickly to reconsider options for further improvements to the UK porting arrangements for the benefit of UK consumers. It is to be regretted that industry has missed a chance to make progress in this work without the need for further regulatory action," Ofcom's statement continued. "We will now seek urgent discussions with the operators to progress these issues so that consumers can benefit from an improved porting process."

ZDNet.co.uk has contacted all the major four operators for comment, but has, thus far, only had a response from Vodafone. A spokesperson for that carrier claimed the CAT judgement had actually urged a cessation of all moves towards faster number portability.

"The judgement said there was no basis to proceed," said Vodafone's spokesperson. "Throughout the process of this appeal we have [followed] as much as had been prescribed. We're doing our best to move on with this, but with a solution that is properly costed."

By apparent coincidence, also on Wednesday, members of the European Parliament voted through the Telecoms Package, a vast raft of new and updated laws that are designed to protect the European telecoms consumer. One of those new pieces of legislation will force operators across the continent to speed up number porting to a day at most. A European Parliament spokesperson told ZDNet.co.uk on Thursday that this law would likely come into effect by June 2009, when the next European Parliamentary elections are due to take place.