Telecom chief operating officer Simon Moutter says the basics of number portability are with us now and the most crucial improvement — the passing through of caller-line identification — is coming by mid-next year. That's despite giving a pessimistic impression on number portability at the recent Tuanz Telecommunications Day.
However, Tuanz chief Ernie Newman says this is far from enough. He accuses Moutter and Telecom head Theresa Gattung of deliberately trying to dampen expectations of number portability and remove a crucial "sharpening" factor in competition.
Dismissing any need for number portability on mobiles, Gattung has been quoted as saying there has been "bugger-all" porting of numbers from one mobile carrier to another in Australia.
According to Newman, however, more than half-a-million Australians prove her wrong. "Figures from the Australian Communications Authority show that for the 2002-3 year, 540,000 customers — more than 5% of the market — switched carriers and kept their numbers.
"If users know they can change without having to change their numbers that makes carriers aware of the potential of churn — of losing their existing customers — and price competition sharpens noticeably," Newman says.
“There’s a lot of rubbish being talked about our not having number portability,” says Moutter. "For customers who switch from us to TelstraClear, we can offer number portability now through call forwarding.”
The most crucial gap is that the call-forwarding solution does not pass through a caller-line identification (CLI), he says. “Telecom has put on the table [with telcos and user organisations negotiating portability] a clever piece of engineering we have been working on with NEC, our main exchange provider,” Moutter says. This will enhance the call-forwarding mechanism to transmit the CLI. “There is some rewriting of software to be done, but we should be able to achieve that by the middle of next year.”
That, says Moutter, is where Telecom would like to see number portability rest until, several years down the track, his company institutes its pure IP network. “Number portability on the PSTN [public switched telephone network] is not simple, because a number is associated with a physical line. With IP, we are free of that association and it will be a lot easier.”
But Moutter is neglecting at least one other fundamental factor, the cost, Newman says. "Every time a person ports their number to another carrier then there is a per-call charge under the current scheme for forwarding the call from the old connection to the new phone. That remains a cost in the system" and a discouragement to users contemplating a shift. "This is not the way number portability works anywhere else in the developed world," Newman says. "It's not even a 1990s solution, never mind a 21st-century one."
In 1998, during the time of the last National government, then-communications minister Maurice Williamson threatened government intervention unless a number portability solution was found. That encouraged conclusion of a Numbering Administration Deed (NAD) to lay down the basic points, but the administrative and technical detail has been snarled in inconclusive discussion since, first with the body set up under the deed and since late last year with the Telecommunications.Carrier Forum (TCF).
"Every month since 1999, there has been at least one meeting of the NAD or TCF, which has taken three or four hours and where number portability has been a major topic," Newman says. "And every month, Telecom has given the impression they were willing, eventually, to provide [full portability]. Now they seem to be telling us they're not interested, at least on mobiles."
Telecom public affairs manager John Goulter says Gattung's remarks were taken out of context and that she meant to emphasise that the effort put into portability should concentrate on the fixed-line business where the demand is, rather than on mobile, where the situation is keenly competitive and customers are not hesitating to change carriers.
The ACA report, he says, also points out that the churn between carriers in Australia has not noticeably changed in volume since number portability was introduced.