Pick a number, any number

As big as the issue of unbundling is for telcos, number portability is likely to have a greater, and more immediate, impact for end users.

As big as the issue of unbundling is for telcos, number portability is likely to have a greater, and more immediate, impact for end users.

Number portability means never having to say "I have no choice" when it comes to telecommunications provider. Don't like the service? Just up stakes and move on to the next telco.

Currently that involves a lengthy, costly and annoying process in which new numbers are assigned, possibly new cellphones as well, business cards need reprinting and so on.

With number portability you, the customer, get to keep your number regardless of provider.

As the FCC said when mandating US mobile number portability last month: "We reaffirm the basic truth: your phone number belongs to you, and you can take it with you. Companies will now have to use better service, lower prices and innovation to keep customers. Companies that want your business have every incentive to make the transition as smooth as possible. That’s why we expect the number transfer process to be successful on the whole."

Hong Kong introduced number portability in 1999 and its telcos have stabilised customer churn at less than 5%.

This whole debate has been going on in New Zealand for nearly a decade. Finally it could be nearing its conclusion. It's a complicated business, each country having its own commercial, political and technical shoals to navigate.

In this country, the bunfights to be sorted out are being led out by technology. I'm reliably told number portability was first looked at when Telecom was separated out from the Post Office. That's right, in the mists of time part technicians and cardigan-wearing government officials were discussing the matter over cups of tea and possibly an Anzac or two.

The problem here is simple -- or, rather, hard. The numbering scheme is tied to the physical network. It's rather like saying "I want to move house from Auckland to Wellington and I'm taking my street number with me." Not the easiest of tasks. Separating the two is what a carrier forum is working on at the moment. A solution is expected early next year.

Most of the telcos are chomping at the bit after a decade of debate on the subject. Telecom says that under its coming network, which will be all-IP based, this kind of thing will be relatively easy, so why not wait till then?

If we assume it's technically possible, the next question is, who is going to pay for it?

Telecom, cry the other telcos. The other telcos, cries Telecom. Both have good reasoning. Telecom says: "Why should we pay for something that will only benefit our competitors?" Its competitors say: "Get off the grass; every other jurisdiction does this, you should do it as well and you should pay because it's your network, as you remind us so very often". Ultimately, of course, it doesn't matter. As we know by now, we the users will pay (even if just for the takeover bills: carriers are expected to quickly merge and reduce in number in the US.)

It will all go before the Commerce Commission's telecomms division as these things are wont to do. Already five companies outside the carrier forum have got the ball rolling with submissions. The commission is working with the forum to find a solution but I can't imagine they will reach a commercial conclusion on their own, so it will be back to the issues paper, draft determination, public meeting, final determination process we've all becoming familiar with. Still, this is a worthy one and I would expect we'll have the final decision long before we see any benefit from unbundling of the local loop.

Brislen is Computerworld Online'sreporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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