Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sep. 19, 2005. 01:00 AM

Why the delay on number portability?


Sometimes the best way to get out of doing something quickly is to publicly commit to doing it.

By voluntarily agreeing this past spring to implement a system that allows people to keep phone numbers when switching wireless service providers, Bell Mobility, Telus Mobility and Rogers Wireless pre-empted any attempt by government or the regulator to force the situation on them.

In April, two months after an unprecedented comment in the federal budget called for the regulator to "move expeditiously" on the issue, the wireless industry gained control of the process by reluctantly agreeing to implement wireless number portability.

But it didn't say when. Why rush to conclusions? Instead, it hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to study the issue and come back six months later with a report. It bought the industry some valuable time, and it was enough to get the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to back off.

Industry Canada also eased the pressure, though Industry Minister David Emerson hinted in his own press release that he expected the service to be implemented in a "timely fashion."

Six months later, the words "timely" — meaning "within a prescribed or reasonable time" — and "expeditiously" — meaning "done with speed and efficiency" — appear to have been abandoned.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association announced last week that, under the professional advice of hired gun PricewaterhouseCoopers, it will take exactly two years before a wireless number portability system will be available to Canadian mobile phone subscribers.

It even went so far as to call the schedule "aggressive," which for consumers amounts to an insult. By September 2007 Canada, a country that prides itself on being a world leader in telecommunications, will be four long years behind the United States in offering the service.

We are no longer a leader.

And by dragging its feet on this issue, the wireless industry is losing what goodwill it has left among consumers who are tired of being charged unjustifiably high system-access fees, denied alternative long-distance plans, locked down to their phones, smacked with high U.S. and international roaming rates, and unable to get the kind of creative and affordable service plans readily found in the U.S.

"We are perplexed, and a little bit ashamed of our telecom industry," wrote telecom consultancy The Seaboard Group in a brief released last week.

"Canada was supposed to be a world leader in communications — yet we can't manage to let a customer keep her telephone number as she changes providers? We are already competing for last place in the industrialized world. Last place in wireless penetration, last place in number portability — is that how we want to be known?"

Seaboard believes it's possible for full-out number portability between wireless and wireline carriers in Canada to rolled out by Christmas.

Truth be known, a system is already in place that handles number switches for local phone companies, and it's been there for years. When you move from Bell Canada to Sprint Canada, or a VoIP service like Vonage for that matter, you can keep your number.

There's no reason the wireless industry — which only has three players now — can't build on top of that existing technology, not to mention follow the path the America wireless operators have already blazed.

Microcell Telecommunications, now owned by Rogers, chose to begin offering portability two years ago when it launched its CityFido service, so what barriers make it so difficult for Rogers, Telus and Bell to do the same within the next six to 12 months?

Funny, Rogers can buy and fully integrate Microcell's entire national network in less than a year but it needs two years to implement a relatively simple service that Fido customers can already get. You've got to wonder about priorities.

The backlash is beginning.

Industry Canada, which rarely strays from its polite and diplomatic script, has already expressed disappointment in the wireless industry's two-year schedule. Meanwhile, Virgin Mobile Canada has been milking the outrage to its own advantage — as it should.

Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, which includes Virgin Mobile Canada, has placed ads in major newspapers trying to rile up Canadians. Accusing the industry of dragging its feet, Branson says the public needs to speak out.

He's even written personally to Prime Minister Paul Martin's office in hopes that the government will flex its muscles.

"The industry is not going to roll over and do it," Branson said on a conference call last Friday. "The prime minister needs to intervene and tell the industry that this must be done within four to six months."

In a conversation with CRTC chairman Charles Dalfen last Friday, it became clear that the wireless industry's announced timeline isn't written in stone. The regulator is beginning to accept comment on the wireless association's number portability plan, including complaints over how long it will take to introduce the service.

"It's an issue in play now," said Dalfen, who was careful not to bias the process with his own opinion.

He expects all comments to be in a month from now, and a final decision from the CRTC to be released before year's end.

"There are those who believe (portability) should be done faster," he said. "That could be a decision we come up with."

So if there was ever a time to complain ...


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