90,000 NZ phone numbers sold to Skype

The integrity of New Zealand's phone system is being questioned after internet telephony firm Skype buys 90,000 numbers through an intermediary

The Telecommunications Users Association (TUANZ) has slammed the self-regulatory body that looks after New Zealand phone numbers after it sold thousands of numbers to foreign companies.

The body, called the Number Administration Deed (NAD), has sold 90,000 unallocated phone numbers for Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Sydney-based company Symbio Networks. Symbio on-sold the numbers to Luxembourg-based internet phone company Skype.

TUANZ chief executive Ernie Newman says foreign companies have managed to get hold of thousands of New Zealand phone numbers relatively easily.

"There is a real danger that if any company is able to get control of the easiest resource for anyone, then someone will find a way to abuse it,'' he says.

NAD is the authority that manages the master register for the entire pool of New Zealand phone numbers with the +64 suffix.

Newman says it's "a huge resource'' and strong rules are needed to manage it.

"As technology develops, more and more numbers are required and the systems to support it need to be robust.''

The system as it stands was managed in a grossly inefficient way, Newman says. Overseas, most countries' phone numbers are under the jurisdiction of the government. NAD needs to be immediately placed under the jurisdiction of a government agency or the other self-regulatory telco industry body, the Telecommunications Carriers Forum, Newman says.

"The Commerce Commission should never have given approval for NAD to be formed,'' he says.

NAD independent chairman Richard Rowley says Skype's new services are not necessarily a bad thing for the New Zealand consumer.

Skype, which is a voice service via the internet, is offering a New Zealand phone number for 50 each to customers overseas. For the cost of a local call, people in New Zealand can dial the number on landlines and mobiles and the Skype customer can pick up the call anywhere in the world.

"It's still an innovative new service, there has to be a balance between encouraging local industry and innovation,'' says Rowley.

But he admits foreign companies who join NAD may be outside the requirements of New Zealand legislation, including number portability, which is the ability to switch telephone companies and keep the same phone number.

"If they [phone numbers] are being transferred to Skype, and Skype is selling them to the overseas market, the chances are not very high that they have an arrangement to port the numbers.''

Rowley is in discussions with Skype's go-between, Symbio, about the issue. "We haven't done our homework yet'' on whether there is a risk for New Zealand phone numbers to be in the hands of foreign companies, Rowley says.

It was a significant resource and should not be allowed to be used by "anyone who is anyone'' around the world, he says.

NAD's membership rules are also being changed so that anyone who joins needs to be a New Zealand resident and comply with High Court rules.

"Just having a phone number and post office box in New Zealand will not be good enough. They will need a business presence in New Zealand, not the facade of a business.''

That way members would be subject to New Zealand legislation, Rowley says.

NAD was set up by the industry and gained Commerce Commission approval in 1999. A number administrator, M-Co, was appointed and an independent chair, but M-Co resigned in June this year.

It costs $10,000 a year to join the NAD and a fee of $500 is charged for a block of a group of 10,000 geographic phone numbers. NAD is made up of 13 members and revenue is spent on paying the salaries of the administrator, the independent chairman's fees and for research. The administrator, who looks after the entire pool of +64 numbers in New Zealand, works from her home in Ohakea.

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