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Playing the numbers game

The industry claims it has not experienced great demand for wireless number portability. That is not exactly true.


April 1, 2005  


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There it is, buried at the bottom of chapter four of the federal government’s 2005 Budget Plan, tabled on February 23: “The Government also intends to ask the CRTC to move expeditiously to implement wireless number portability.”

Apparently, this will happen even before Ottawa sets up the new telecom policy and regulatory framework review panel promised a paragraph earlier.

The industry has two arguments against wireless number portability (WNP) — the ability to change service providers while keeping the same phone number.

First, carriers say, there is little demand: The day after the budget was released, Compare Cellular (www.comparecellular-.com) published speaking points attributed to the CWTA, the primary lobby group for the Canadian wireless industry.

One of the points notes that the “industry has not received a great demand to date” for WNP.

Second, the carriers argue that they have to balance the cost of implementing WNP with its potential benefits to customers. Their verdict? The costs outweigh the benefits, so it should not be implemented.

What’s the real cost?

But what is the real cost for business? In December 1998, Microcell Telecom-munications (the company behind Fido) asked the CRTC to mandate WNP.

In a news release announcing its application, Microcell argued that while customers may want to change service providers, “the cost and confusion of also changing numbers can be a huge detriment”, adding that “in the case of business users, the number is printed on thousands of pieces of letterhead and business cards.”

The CRTC denied the application in 1999 (and Microcell disappeared last year into Rogers, which opposed WNP).

Fast forward to today. The wireless industry has more than doubled in size since 1999, to more than 14.3 million customers at the end of 2004.

Increasingly, sales professionals, field service personnel, executives and others who spend much of their working lives away from a desk use wireless phones as their primary means to connect with their customers, colleagues and suppliers.

And on January 14, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, responding to “considerable interest … from consumers and mobile providers” released a draft report on wireless number portability. (You can find the draft online at: www.piac.ca.)

Drop in the bucket

While this is a work in progress, PIAC notes that Canada is one of the few industrialized countries that does not have WNP.

Portability became reality in the United States in 2003: PIAC’s report notes carrier surcharges were lower than expected, and have dropped dramatically since then, to as little as five cents per month, per line, for Verizon customers.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of reprinting stationery – not to mention the lost business from customers calling numbers that no longer exist.

Moreover, if a business is seriously considering switching to a new wireless service provider, it’s for reasons that will more than offset an extra 60 cents per year: benefits like better customer service, better rate plans, more innovative services that address a company’s requirements, and so on.

PIAC’s draft report concludes that while competition is currently vigorous, “the industry has been dominated by oligopolistic behaviour in the past, and there are suggestions it may be again in the near future. Mandatory (WNP) would offer some measure of protection against that happening.”

The industry’s first argument against WNP – that there’s little demand – begs the question: If you’re in business and haven’t demanded WNP, why haven’t you?

Unfortunately, PIAC’s deadline for comment on its draft report will expire before this column goes to print.

But I encourage readers to express their views on number portability to PIAC, the CWTA, their wireless service provider, and – most importantly – to the CRTC.

The lack of wireless number portability in Canada is a huge, and entirely artificial, barrier to shopping around for the best mobile services for your company.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@words-tm.com.