Sunday, 2 September 2007

Move mobile phone providers more easily (or will you?) - have your say

The quickie

If you want to change mobile service providers but keep the use of your existing mobile number on the new network, UK telecomms regulator Ofcom have decreed that from 1 April 2008 the network operators must switch your number across to the new network within 2 working days (currently 5 working days), and Ofcom also propose that by 1 September 2009 the industry moves to "a near-instant [not more than 2 hours] recipient led process which allow[s] consumers to go into a mobile phone shop and walk out with a new phone connected to a new provider with the number ported".

They've decided on the 2 day reduction, and are consulting on the further proposals. While this is very good news, I believe that Ofcom have not focused sufficiently on what time period they should be telling the mobile industry to shorten as from 1 April 2008. As a result, some providers could continue to take advantage of a loophole which will allow them to pile on 3 or 4 working days (or probably more, maybe even a week) to the time it takes to transfer your mobile phone number, even after 1 April 2008 - so that they can continue to put customers off moving mobile network suppliers, thus discouraging consumer choice and reducing competition.

If you want to give your views to Ofcom as a mobile phone user (and please consider it, we consumers need to make our voices count), do fill in their short online form by 5pm on 10 September 2007, that's only a little over a week away now.

I give my personal opinions further below; you don't have to agree, but please do have a read of my views below on the key point which I think Ofcom have missed. And in your response to Ofcom, if you wish please feel free to link to my explanation of the point if you agree with me and also want to urge Ofcom to close the loophole which I point out.

The problem - what Ofcom seem to be missing

This is the current procedure for "porting" or moving your mobile number between networks when you change provider, summarised in paras 2.26 and 2.27 on of Ofcom's consultation (and see the useful practical Consumer Guide to Transferring Your Mobile Number if you want a howto - it's from the Ofcom number portability info page):
  1. Request PAC from old provider - you tell your existing provider you want to move and ask them for a PAC or Port Authorisation Code, which is needed to effect the port.
  2. Get PAC - they give you the PAC. Now this could be immediate, e.g. within hours if they're Orange, or days or a week if they're Vodafone and insist on putting it in the post to you even where you've requested the PAC by phone.
  3. Give PAC to new provider - you pass the PAC on to your new provider.
  4. Provider initiates port - the new provider makes a number porting request of the existing provider using the PAC given.
  5. Port happens - the existing provider does the port, which it has to do within 5 days of being asked to make the switch (or, from 1 April 2008, 2 working days).

As mobile phone users, frankly all we really care about is that the time taken from step 1 to step 5 is as short as possible. And that any maximum period which the networks, both old and new, are given by Ofcom to implement the switchover, whether it's 5 days or 2 days or whatever, covers all the steps 1 to 5. Now Ofcom said that as of 1 April 2008, "all mobile operators must transfer numbers no later than two days after a consumer has decided to switch operator." You'll notice they say "after a consumer has decided". So you'd think that Ofcom meant that all of those steps 1 to 5 should take 2 days at most, wouldn't you?

Well, not necessarily. They actually mean steps 4 to 5. There's a gap between step 1 and 2. Ofcom aren't imposing a new or shorter time limit on how long your existing provider can take to get around to issuing you with a PAC. But unless and until they do that, your old provider can make a mockery of the proposed 2 (or 5) day limit just by drawing out the gap between your asking for a PAC and your getting one from them, for as long as they feel they can get away with it (which could be up to a whole week, as you'll see from my detailed analysis below). Vodafone already do it.

If you agree with me (and my detailed analysis as to why I've reached that conclusion is below), then please consider responding to Ofcom to ask them to fix this loophole. I feel Ofcom really should lay down an absolute maximum period between steps 1 and 5, altogether - if they are going to require that the "current process is completed in two working days", they should spell out exactly what "process" should be encompassed within those 2 working days.

The long and the slow


When moving mobile phone networks in the UK, if you want to take or "port" your old phone number with you (mobile number portability) you face two potential problems, as Ofcom point out in their consultation summary:
  • The procedure to retain your existing mobile number is more hassle and takes longer than it should compared with elsewhere in the world.
  • Technically, you are still forced to rely indefinitely on your original network to forward / route incoming calls to your transferred number - so if the original operator suffers a technical failure or goes out of business, you won't be able to receive any calls on your ported number on your new network. Whereas in most of the rest of Europe, calls to ported numbers are routed directly to the consumer’s new provider.

Ofcom want to improve this unsatisfactory situation for consumers. They think "This can be done if UK industry co-operates to develop a shared database which holds details of all ported numbers. Ofcom has concluded that migration to Next Generation Networks (“NGN”) technology offers an opportunity to do this cost effectively."

Back in November 2006 Ofcom consulted on a Review of General Condition 18 – Number Portability (summary). Following that, in July 2007 they issued a further consultation Arrangements for porting phone numbers when customers switch supplier (summary press release, full document) about their proposed solution to make it easier for mobile customers to transfer their mobile phone number over to an alternative supplier.

Ofcom said that their key objectives on mobile number portability are "to ensure that consumers can port their number between providers of mobile services in the quickest possible time and that the process of porting facilitates switching between providers."

The problem? - in detail

In their official papers and rules, Ofcom seem to have focused solely on "porting lead time" which is the time between steps 4 and 5. According to para 2.28 p.14 of the consultation, "At present, the process, from the point at which the new provider uses the PAC to make a porting request to the moment when the port is completed, take five working days. This period is known as the porting lead-time, and during this time the subscriber continues to receive calls via his existing provider."

Ofcom are only laying down the law on the period between what I've called steps 4 and step 5. Let's look at it in context. Their new General Condition 18, the rules the networks will have to follow from 1 April 2008, start with:
"18.1 The Communications Provider shall provide Number Portability as soon as it is reasonably practicable on reasonable terms, including charges, to any of its Subscribers who so requests.
18.2 The Communications Provider shall, pursuant to a request from another Communications Provider, provide Portability (other than Paging Portability) as soon as is reasonably practicable in relation to that request on reasonable terms. In the case of Mobile Portability, where the request is for porting a total of less than 25 Telephone Numbers, the total period for providing Portability in respect of those Telephone Numbers shall not exceed two business days."

That last sentence, which I've put in italics, is what's coming in on 1 April 2008 - it isn't operative yet. So, as you can see, at the moment there isn't a clear deadline for step 2 in GC 18.1. It's just "as soon as reasonably practicable", which is wishy washy as anything and can let the network get away with saying "Oh it just isn't reasonably practicable for me guv, I'm just a poor unsophisticated telecomms provider with really terrible electronic systems and customer-related databases".

My tuppenceworth is this: if Ofcom thinks it's worth putting in a clear 2 business day deadline, then they ought to make that a clear deadline for the whole move process from start to finish, whether initiated by the customer or the new provider. Otherwise the old network is free to wriggle out of it. At the moment I don't feel that the last sentence above is enough. I feel strongly that it ought to be changed to add an extra bit at the end, something like what I've put in bold italics:
In the case of Mobile Portability, where the request is for porting a total of less than 25 Telephone Numbers, the total period for providing Portability in respect of those Telephone Numbers shall not exceed two business days starting from the date when the other Communications Provider requested Portability or, if earlier, the date when the Subscriber requested Number Portability.

Otherwise, there's a gap and an uncertainty. The uncertainty is, what does the "total period for providing Portability" mean? Is it the same as the "porting lead time" I mentioned above (and which Ofcom refer to a lot in their paper)? If so, they're only dealing with the period between steps 4 and 5. Any maximum time period imposed on the providers should include all of steps 1 to 5 above to be worth anything, or it will make a nonsense of Ofcom's declaration in their press release that it should be 2 days after "a consumer has decided".

To make matters worse, from the Ofcom consultation paras 5.52 and 5.53 it's quite clear that Ofcom don't intend to do anything about reducing the time period between steps 1 and 2. Indeed, let me quote you those paragraphs and provide the link to the manual mentioned - I've added the bold emphasis:
"5.52 Syniverse and Vodafone questioned whether Ofcom intended that the time to provide a PAC (currently up to two days) should be reduced, and whether this action should be completed within the timeframe specified for porting.

5.53 Ofcom notes that the Mobile Number Portability Process Manual envisages that, where a subscriber requests a PAC by phone, this may be issued immediately, but the manual specifies a maximum of 2 working days to provide written confirmation or to respond to postal and faxed requests for a PAC. Ofcom does not intend to require changes to these processes at the present time although Ofcom recognises that, in the event that recipient led porting were introduced, the existing process for the issue of PACs could not be maintained. In the meantime, however, Ofcom would be concerned if valid phone based requests for PACs were not granted immediately, and would welcome information about service providers who were unreasonably delaying provision of PACs. In any event, unreasonable delay is likely to place the provider in breach of the obligation in General Condition 18 to provide portability as soon as reasonably practicable."

Do you see that "may" (not "must") for a phone request, which I've put in italics in 5.53? Here's a gap which Vodafone have been known to exploit, as I mentioned in relation to step 2, so it's not surprising that Vodafone were one of the companies asking that question. In fact, let me quote that manual, paras 18 and 19 on pg 25:
"18 If the customer contacts the DSP by phone the PAC may be issued immediately. If a PAC is issued the 30 calendar day PAC validity period starts. Written confirmation of the port authorisation and PAC (or reason for is non issue) must be despatched to the customer within 2 working days of the authorisation request.

19 If the customer contacts the DSP by fax, e-mail or letter, the DSP must respond with the written port authorisation and PAC, or reason for non-issue, within 2 working days of receipt of the customer's request. If a PAC is issued, the 30 days PAC validity period will start on the day the PAC is generated from the Web."

So, if you ask for your PAC by phone, your mobile company is perfectly entitled to refuse to give it to you immediately, as long as they send you the PAC within 2 working days after you asked for it - and they have 2 working days to send it to you, it's not even that you have to receive it within 2 working days after the request.

Vodafone make full use of this loophole - you phone for the PAC, they wait up to 2 whole working days, then they send you the PAC by snail mail, and you have to wait another day or two or even longer to receive it in the post. That's 3 working days minimum, usually more, before you can even get to step 3; it could even be a whole calendar week depending on when you ask for the PAC and the speed of the postal service. So what does it matter if the time between steps 4 to 5 is restricted by Ofcom to 5 (or even 2) working days? By stretching out the time between steps 1 and 2, the old provider has already succeeded in doubling the time it takes you to switch your mobile number to your new network, and by making it twice as inconvenient perhaps succeeded in putting off some people from changing suppliers.

It's good that in para 5.53 Ofcom said they'd be concerned about this sort of thing happening and would welcome information about this - well, I'm telling them about it now (and will in my own response). What I'd like really to know is, what are they going to be doing about it?

This is another instance (like GC 22 on migrating broadband services, which I may well blog about in a future post as I've got burned there myself), of a telecomms provider exploiting the letter of the rule to the disadvantage of the consumer. And it seems to me that the only way that Ofcom can stop them from getting away with it is to change the letter of the rule (maybe along the lines I've suggested above) to close the loophole up so tight that they won't have any wiggle or wriggle room. I think it's too optimistic to expect companies to abide by the spirit of the rule - from my own experiences of phone and broadband service providers, if you give them even one tiny loophole some of them will eagerly make use of it as much as they can to the detriment of the consumer.

Either Ofcom meant what they said in their press release about making the deadline 2 days from the customer's decision, or they didn't. If they did, then they ought to put their money where their mouth is and fix the GC 18 changes to tighten things up and force both providers to get the number port all done and dusted within 2 working days (or whatever period) after the consumer decides to switch.

Yes, by the time Ofcom's proposals for "recipient led porting", below, are carried through, people should be able to get their phone numbers migrated across in a couple of hours. But it will be a whole year and a half between 1 April 2008 and September 2009, and Ofcom should be thinking about the position of consumers in the meantime.

Other proposals - direct routing etc

There are some other matters covered in the Ofcom proposals, which I'll just outline here for completeness's sake - I feel the key issue is what I've dealt with above.

As I mentioned, the second problem in the UK with number portability is the dependence on the original provider for call routing.

Ofcom want fixed and mobile providers to create a common central database of transferred numbers and which provider currently terminates services on each ported number. The database would be designed to enable porting processes to be automated. Ofcom believes this should enable mobile operators to switch numbers to new networks almost instantly, or within two hours, and that database would also enable calls to be routed directly to the new provider without relying on the network to which the number was originally allocated, which should minimise the risk of interrupted service for the mobile user should the original provider’s network fail.

Ofcom proposes that the database be set up and populated by all mobile providers by 31 December 2008, with direct routing of calls to ported numbers on mobile networks – and a near instant mobile number porting process - by 1 September 2009, and direct routing of calls to transferred numbers on fixed networks (i.e. land lines) by 31 December 2012.

Ofcom is also consulting on an option that would require mobile providers to move to a recipient led porting process, i.e. customers would need to make just one call – to the provider they wish to join – to carry out the transfer, with the new provider using the common database to process the port without requiring the subscriber also to contact his former provider (except as necessary to terminate any existing contract).

As I've already mentioned, the deadline for responses is Monday 10 September 5 pm and everyone has a right to have their say, including us consumers - so this is your chance to weigh in if you want to.

(And before anyone thinks it, I'm as much of an Ofcom insider as I am a BBC mole! As in, not. Again, I just happen to be able to read, analyse and synthesise lots of papers...)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i have been waiting 2 weeks + for a PAC code to be given to me from my phones4u who haven't even cancelled my contract yet, despite my repeatedly asking them.
this is disgusting i will never go to phones4u again