Wireless carriers push for big bang approach to number portability

The CRTC is expected to rule on how and when carriers will handle wireless number portability requests in the coming weeks, but the body that represents Canada’s carriers is adamant that a national rollout is the way to go.

The alternative under consideration by the regulator, is a phased approach, where cities and provinces would receive the ability to port wireline to wireless or wireless to wireless numbers between carriers. A national rollout, where everyone is granted that ability simultaneously may take longer, but is the preferable option, said Peter Barnes, president and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

“The advantage of the approach is that the service is rolled out to all Canadians at the same time,” he said. “We’ve been able to develop within the association a consensus among all our carrier members, and that ranges from Bell Canada and Rogers to Thunder Bay Telephone.”

In a report commissioned by the CWTA, PricewaterhouseCoopers determined that September 12, 2007 is a realistic and practical date for a national plan. A phased approach may only shave a few months off that deadline, said Barnes.

“Initially people back off and say, ‘Gee, that’s a long time away,’ but the problem is not technology, it’s really getting the business processes and practices and systems in place,” he said.

Those processes involve customer records, billing issues and inter-carrier co-operation. A national rollout would eliminate what Barnes called “competitive distortions,” by allowing carriers, both big and small, to offer WNP at the same time. It would also reduce customer confusion, he added. With a phased approach “you’re probably increasing your costs and your customer confusion. You’re probably getting a lot of wheel-spinning with customers, which is not the optimal solution,” he said.

In a research note, the Yankee Group’s Canadian market strategies analyst Marina Amoroso said that the CWTA’s national plan has merit.

“The simultaneous nationwide launch of wireless number portability is a key consumer benefit of the CWTA’s plan,” she wrote. “It allows all wireless and wireline subscribers to take their number with them as they switch wireless carriers. It also treats subscribers in Kenora, Ont., the same as customers in Toronto.”

Amoroso also noted that when the U.S. planned for a phased approach to WNP in 1996, it took eight years before all of the nation’s wireless users were able to take advantage of the service.

“It was a real mess, as far as customers went. Frankly, we’re benefiting from their experience and their errors,” said Barnes.

But the CWTA may be overselling the argument that a phased approach is detrimental to Canadian consumers, said Iain Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group, based in Montreal.

His firm recently published a report called “They can’t be serious: SeaBoard comments on CWTA number portability plan.”

The report states: “We understand the (CWTA’s) hesitancy. What we don’t get is the lack of urgency, nor do we appreciate how the present systems and procedures, systems and procedures that work today, fall short.”

The report also points out that one of Canada’s carriers – Fido, operated by Rogers Communications – already allows its customers to port numbers to wireless.

“Fido is the only one of Canada’s wireless companies that is registered as a wireless CLEC. Is the Fido (WNP) implementation elegant? No. I think it’s all done by faxes, but that doesn’t belie the fact that it works,” explained Grant.

In other words, Canadian carriers have the wherewithal to implement WNP sooner than September 2007. Grant said he was surprised that some carriers are going along with the CWTA’s national plan. Smaller carriers like Virgin would have an opportunity to quickly grow a customer base by pilfering customers from the incumbents, for example. Bell Mobility, the nation’s largest carrier referred all WNP-related inquiries back to the CWTA.

Grant also criticized the idea that a phased implementation would confuse consumers. “Canada is a country of regions. If you roll out something in Pacific Canada, the odds that anybody in Atlantic Canada or central Canada will ever hear about it are very small. There’s not much possibility of disruption by having a regional rollout as opposed to a national rollout,” he said.

However the rollout is finally done, the carriers will absorb the costs of implementation, said Barnes. The plan is to complete porting requests in two and a half hours, which is comparable to service in the U.S. and Australia, where the service is already available.

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