Phone number portability takes another small step forward

Telcos can't agree, so Commerce Commission agrees to step in

After years of horse-trading and arguing who should pay for what and how to actually go about it, Telecom, TelstraClear and Vodafone have asked the Commerce Commission to set the telco industry’s phone number portability agreements.

A joint application from the three telcos was filed on Christmas Eve last year, asking the Commission to determine the functions that must be performed by a system for landline and mobile number portability. Accompanying the application were two industry code documents that set out how the carriers should implement number portability.

Although the telcos do agree on some points, the documents show that they remain deadlocked over issues of responsibility and cost.

On Monday, the Commission agreed to investigate the application. Commission spokeswoman Jackie Maitland says the telcos have asked for a general determination that the terms agreed upon in the code documents are made enforceable. Maitland says that the Commission has also been asked to decide on a number of issues outstanding in the codes that the carriers have not been able to agree on.

Discussions started in the mid-1990s but despite number portability being enshrined in the Telecommunications Act 2001, little headway has been made. In 2003, an application was made to the Commission by Worldxchange, Ihug, Compass, Callplus and TelstraClear, asking it to determine how the cost of number portability should be allocated amongst the carriers. The Commission released a draft determination on December 6 last year, inviting submissions from interested parties by February 7, 2005.

Asked why the number portability issue is taking so long to resolve, Commerce Commission spokeswoman Jackie Maitland points out that the carriers have been arguing about the implementation for over ten years.

Maitland says the statutory process for number portability under the Telco Act is for the parties involved to make an application to the Commission for a determination. Thus, the Commission cannot act on its own accord and commence investigations and determinations.

According to Maitland, the time it takes for the Commission to make a determination does not slow the process as its work is put into the carriers’ implementation process for number portability.

Telecom's general manager of government and industry relations, Bruce Parkes, says the carriers agree on many more issues than they disagree over. The remaining issues for the Commission to decide on are relatively few and don't go to the substance of the main issue, he says.

Parkes says the determination is a workaround for a drafting glitch of the Telco Act. The Telecommunications Carriers' Forum reading of the Act is that the industry access codes drafted are not necessarily enforceable, says Parkes. However, a Commission determination makes them enforceable under the High Court, hence the application.

Telecom is "all for it" when it come to number portability and sees it as part and parcel of a competitive landscape, Parkes says. For its part, Telecom will be ready for fixed-line portability in June, Parkes adds. However, mobile number portability is still a long way off — April 2007 — as it requires the Forum to complete further work on the implementation details, he says.

TUANZ chief executive Ernie Newman expresses frustration with the pace of progress for number portability. Commenting on the December application for cost determination, Newman says the industry should have figured it out in 1999 and got on with the job of implementing number portability. “That way,” Newman says, “we would have had portability and a competitive market soon after the rest of the developed world.”

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