Saturday, March 05, 2005

Mar. 3, 2005. 08:54 AM

Cellphone users back number portability
Survey supports action as CRTC awaits direction on issue
Numbers `belong to the users' argues organizer of petition

TYLER HAMILTON
TECHNOLOGY REPORTER

Eight out of every 10 wireless subscribers in Canada think they should have the option of keeping their phone number when switching service providers, according to a new survey, countering some industry claims that mobile consumers haven't expressed enough demand for so-called number portability.

Jim Roche is one consumer who hopes the federal regulator will order Canada's wireless industry to offer what the United States, Europe and much of Asia has already introduced. He's starting a petition to make his and other Canadians' feelings known.

"These numbers do not belong to the provider, they belong to the users and those users should be allowed to move them to whatever provider they prefer, at any time," said Roche.

The federal government mentioned in its budget last Wednesday that it would ask the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which had already planned to look at this issue this year, to "move expeditiously" to implement a system for wireless number portability.

During the five days following the budget, Toronto-based Solutions Research Group surveyed 1,000 Canadians by telephone. Of the 564 wireless subscribers in the group, 39 per cent said they "strongly support" and 40 per cent "support" having the ability to keep their number when switching carriers.

The results are considered accurate to plus or minus 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Not having the option of number portability means businesses that switch service providers have to go through the hassle and cost of changing business cards, their letterhead and advertising. Individuals prefer to keep their numbers so friends and family can stay in touch.

Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research, said the lack of number portability is one reason Virgin Mobile Canada will have difficulty luring customers from other service providers.

By dropping this barrier to competition, said Yigit, "carriers would have to compete more on services, prices and features."

Sir Richard Branson, founder of U.K.-based Virgin Group, said during the launch of Virgin Mobile Canada on Tuesday that he was amazed to learn recently that wireless number portability didn't exist in Canada.

"It should be possible to have number portability in the next three or four months," said Branson, who questioned why the CRTC hasn't yet required such a service. "They shouldn't be there for the industry. They need to be there for the consumer."

Philippe Tousignant, a spokesperson for the commission, said officials from Virgin Mobile have already called and a meeting is being set up to discuss the issue.

He said the CRTC is awaiting instruction from the government on how it wants to proceed. "I'm confident if asked to proceed expeditiously we will."

A spokesperson from Industry Canada said the department doesn't plan to order the CRTC to implement number portability. Rather, Minister David Emerson will likely send a letter to the commission outlining concerns that Canada has fallen behind other jurisdictions and that the issue needs priority.

Consensus is that the CRTC, instead of wasting time reviewing whether wireless number portability should be introduced, will focus instead on how to move forward with a system. How much will it cost? How much of that cost will be passed on to consumers? Can we learn from the U.S. system and piggyback on an existing system used by competitive landline carriers in Canada?

Finally, will number portability be implemented broadly to encompass all telecom services, making it possible for local landline customers to keep their numbers when switching to a wireless provider, and vice versa?

"The issue is going to be how long it takes to move on this," said Yigit, who suspects the three major wireless providers, Telus Mobility, Rogers Wireless and Bell Mobility, will delay as long as they can.

Peter Barnes, president of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, said the industry is waiting to learn the government's full intentions.

"The industry was surprised to see the issue in the budget," said Barnes.

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