INTUG, the International Telecommunications Users Group, is extremely disappointed with the New Zealand telecommunications telephone numbering agreement brokered by Communications Minister Maurice Williamson in December.
"From a user's point of view, it's very disappointing," says Asia-Pacific vice-president Anne Hurley, "and out of step with the way the rest of the world is moving." The agreement involves Telecom ceding control of numbering to an independent administrator and provides a potential path towards full number portability — allowing customers to keep their numbers when they move house or premises, or change carrier.
However, it has split the New Zealand industry, with several major players including Clear Communications and WorldXChange refusing to sign. The deal, they say, is too open-ended and could drag on for up to five years before full portability is introduced.
"In the meantime callers will have to make do with call forwarding, an interim solution which is wasteful of the resource network and limits the services available to customers," says Clear Communications marketing communications manager Ross Inglis. "In fact, the current agreement even allows for it not going ahead at all."
Steven Stanford, chief executive of WorldXchange, says the agreement "is basically just a document agreeing to have more discussion -— it takes us nowhere. At the end of the day we have to recognise that number portability is good for our customers, especially business customers, and find a way forward from there. This agreement's really just a nice way of stalling and holding back real portability." Call forwarding, as well as using up valuable capacity, also prevents operators like WorldXChange from offering full functionality to customers, he says. "All of the operators should be able to offer their own 'flavour' of functionality," he says.
Vodafone, on the other hand, signed the agreement along with Telstra, Telecom and several smaller players. Spokesman Mark Champion says that after years of trying to negotiate with an intransigent Telecom, Vodafone was pleased to get any concession from the larger company and wants to support the process from here. "Unfortunately, the longer other companies take to join us the longer the whole process will take."
The agreement includes provision for a cost-benefit analysis of the implementation of long-term portability solutions, which INTUG considers a time-wasting exercise "when the imperative for mandating portability is clear from overseas studies and experience," says Hurley.
"To travel that path again will just cause delays and deter new entrants into the market."
The biggest costs are faced by Telecom, as the dominant player. Full number portability would be achieved by the "intelligent network" approach which many countries are working towards.
While most of New Zealand's new entrants have intelligent network platforms that would support full portability arrangements, Telecom has older equipment that will need upgrading at a considerable cost. That cost, it has suggested, should be met in part by the new entrants.
"That attitude's just a hangover from their days as a monopoly," says one smaller competitor.
"Why should we pay for them to put in place a solution — and a gold-plated one, no doubt — to help them compete with us?"