Number Portability in mobile networks

In terms of mobile networks, does Number Portability (NP) really work and how has the growing importance of text services changed...

In terms of mobile networks, does Number Portability (NP) really work and how has the growing importance of text services changed the landscape?

Number Portability (NP) is the ability to move from one network to another whilst retaining your existing phone number. NP has been accepted on terrestrial networks but mobile networks are a different story. Problems specific to mobile networks exist, such as the different ways in which number prefixes are processed and issues such as the complexities of the different charge bands. OFTEL, the industry regulator, has the arduous task of aiding NP's introduction by steering a centre path between stimulating competition and overseeing fairness that will lead to the provision of value-added services.

Being tied to an operator through non-portable telephone numbers has no doubt frustrated mobile phone users, but some mobile operators have argued against NP from both an economic and technological standpoint. On the other hand, customers are hankering after the economic and the freedom-of-movement benefits.

Essentially, NP is a very simple idea - allow mobile phone users to access different networks while on the move. Simple though the concept may be, it is being applied to a pretty complex service, with a multitude of different providers. Those with the most to lose are the well-established mobile players such as Vodafone and BTCellnet. Newer mobile companies, such as Virgin Network, have welcomed NP because it creates an opportunity to increase market share through "churn" - the rate at which users switch service providers. Without NP, a customer would probably have to be very dissatisfied with their existing service or stand to gain substantially by moving. In effect, competing effectively through NP provision may clear a path for newer companies to gain larger chunks of market share.

Although the advantages of NP to the user are many, it also poses some technical problems that might affect users. Moreover, the tariff aspects of a call are not simple to administer. Users have become accustomed to call management features such as Calling Line Identification (CLI), Call Waiting and Automatic Call Back. However, the introduction of NP in some networks poses problems with retaining these features. Although NP is associated with telephone calls, it also applies to fax and data calls.

One option that goes some way towards achieving NP (as well as insulating companies from BT's enforced number changes) is the introduction of personal numbers. While personal numbers and NP are sometimes confused, there is an important difference - a personal number is a service from a virtual network, whereas NP is a feature of an existing network.

Personal numbers permit a customer to register their presence anywhere in any network and receive calls anywhere in the world. The beauty of personal numbers is that when you change your telephone number - whether fixed or mobile - it is invisible to the outside world. Of course, there is the pain that must be endured during the initial transition from fixed numbers to personal numbers, but once this is overcome, all the benefits are available. Effectively, personal numbers allow customers to call your usual 07 number, whether you're in the office with a client, at home or on the road.

In order to provide these extra features to a personal number an intelligent network is required, while NP does not require such infrastructure. Ray Nixon, Computer Manager of FleXtel, a personal number company, explains.

"The main difference between a personal number and a portable number is that a personal number is much more flexible, making it easier to stay in touch. Also, there is no connection fee or rental charge. For example, if you're on site with a client and your mobile phone battery goes flat, you can stay in touch with the office by simply redirecting your personal number to a local fixed line or another mobile phone."

The advantages of number branding have already been established. For example, One 2 One numbers began with 0956 and Orange numbers with 0973 - these are being replaced by 07956 or 07973, the 079 code in this instance indicating that a customer is calling a mobile number. However, it can be argued that branding is achieved by the nature of service provided rather than the number code. For example, One 2 One will always be remembered for providing free calls from 7pm to 7am, whereas Orange is associated with Talk Time (free calls for 60 minutes per month). The longer established players - Cellnet and Vodafone - built reputations on the extent of their geographical coverage.

Even with the introduction of NP, customers with new contracts will still be tied initially to their twelve-month contracts because the contract effectively pays for the subsidised handset prices. Therefore, NP will be of interest to customers who have already served their initial 12-month contract term, or to those who have opted for the pre-pay option, which allows customers to pay for mobile phone use as needs dictate.

Virgin Mobile's Steven Day confirms that, "Number Portability does work, whether it is voice or text-based networks. Therefore, the restriction of text being sent from Orange to Orange, or Orange to Virgin Mobile, is no longer an issue."

Even though NP is proving popular, it still suffers from a 28-day delay from first request to a number being ported to a new network. OFTEL is currently trying to shorten this time lag, with a target time of between seven and 10 days, with trials starting in August. At present, one obstacle to speeding up number changes is the dynamics, with the postal service slowing the whole process down - currently documents need to be signed and returned. Using the Internet - and possibly digital signature technology - will greatly shorten the transition time.

The efficiencies that NP offers, coupled with increased levels of competition, will provide certain advantages for business users. For example, subscribers will be able to pay for wireless services before they are used, and private networks can be set up on a service provider's network, giving such advantages such as four-digit dialling within a defined group. Moreover, users will be able to use flexible alerting - subscribers can have their messages ring on a number of different phones simultaneously, completing the call to the first phone answered. In the future, buying telephone numbers may become similar to buying IP addresses, or even domain names for hosting web services.

Number Portability is sweeping through the mobile market and is liberating customers from their ties to individual mobile service operators. This is stimulating competition and producing a greater churn rate, a situation which has seen the likes of Virgin Mobile, with its innovative pricing scheme, gain 300,000 customers within its short life. The competition that NP is creating, and should continue to create, will no doubt lead to lower mobile phone charges and improved services as providers fight for subscribers.

Paul Phillips

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