On the verge of offering a number for life

GETTING a new phone number is a time-consuming, costly process. Besides reprinting business cards and letterheads, you must send hundreds of e-mails and make lots of personal calls to ensure that business partners, friends and family know how to reach you. The thought of switching numbers is enough to keep unhappy customers tied to a specific telephone carrier.

IMAGINE changing phone operators without having to give up the phone number you love.
photo: File photo

GETTING a new phone number is a time-consuming, costly process. Besides reprinting business cards and letterheads, you must send hundreds of e-mails and make lots of personal calls to ensure that business partners, friends and family know how to reach you. The thought of switching numbers is enough to keep unhappy customers tied to a specific telephone carrier.

The best option for a consumer would be the freedom to keep one phone number, regardless of which company supplies the service. This is actually in line with a European Union directive toward universal service.

Recently, the European Commission criticized the Slovak telecommunications market for not yet enabling phone number portability.

According to industry experts, legal issues and technical difficulties have been the main barriers to phone number portability in Slovakia. However, consumers should see partial improvement soon.

The government agency in charge of the national telecommunications market, the Slovak Telecommunications Office, says phone number portability is simply a question of time. It has already updated number portability regulations.

"The new regulation addresses the EC's objections and removes disharmony between the [previous] regulation and the EU's directive on universal service," office spokesperson Roman Vavro told The Slovak Spectator.

He added that the amended regulation would go into effect on July 1, 2005. The number portability would be limited to Slovakia. International portability requires a global solution, which depends on agreement between various national providers.

Do not expect to switch carriers and keep your same number on July 1, however. The amendment merely establishes the legal conditions for portability. When, exactly, consumers can exercise choice without sacrificing their phone numbers is unknown. It largely depends on mutual agreements between phone companies.

Slovakia's fixed-line operator focusses on the fact that number portability requires additional investments in technology, while the country's mobile phone service providers are already negotiating with each other to make it happen.

Orange and T-Mobile are already negotiating on number portability. No date is set for the service but Orange says experience shows that implementing number portability within a mobile network takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months.

"We have already been working for several months on preparations to implement [number portability]," Peter Tóth, the spokesperson for Orange in Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator.

He added that number portability requires investments in the tens of million of crowns. It is up to the carriers themselves to solve the technical and practical issues that portability raises. For example, by what criteria will a customer judge whether he is making a call within his local network or outside of it?

Juraj Droba, the director of corporate affairs at T-Mobile in Slovakia, agrees that preparations take upwards of a year. He stressed that T-Mobile is working "cooperatively with the related telecommunications organizations" to provide number portability as quickly as possible.

Mobile operators are not worried about losing customers once number portability is enabled. Tóth said, "Operators that already offer number portability did not reflect a dramatic fluctuation in customers when they launched the service. Additionally, high client loyalty is typical for the Slovak market."

The situation is apparently more complicated when it comes to fixed-line operators. Alternative fixed-line operators - those apart from Slovak Telecom - argue that the issue of interconnection contracts with Slovak Telecom must be solved before they are ready to tackle number portability.

Only a handful of alternative operators have signed interconnection contracts with Slovak Telecom, enabling them to provide fixed-line services that compete with the former monopoly. So far, seven companies have signed: Amtel, Dial Telecom, Etel, Globaltel, Slovanet, Nextra and Železničné telekomunikácie, the railway telecommunications company.

"Without interconnection it makes no sense to talk about number portability," Konštantín Schmidt, Nextra's project manager, told The Slovak Spectator.

Karin Kurpielová, marketing manager for Dial Telecom, which currently competes with Slovak Telecom, sees other reasons for focussing on issues outside number portability.

"We do not see the introduction of number portability as real in the near future. We also doubt that fixed-line operators are prepared. It is more a regulation issue than a technical one," Kurpielová said.

Slovak Telecom claims it is technically prepared for providing number portability services. At the same time, Slovak Telecom spokesperson Rado-slav Bielka pointed out: "Operators must all agree on a

common technical solution for exchanging information on the network in order to correctly direct calls from or to ported numbers."

Bielka said that no such agreements exist on the common standard and proceedings to ensure number portability. Only after agreements are made can technical changes be made to realize the service.

"The agreements themselves and their implementation require time. Also, as long as there is no actual interconnection of networks it makes no sense to talk about number portability among the networks," Bielka said.

Slovak Telecom expects number portability to carry a large price tag. This is because portability requires an "intelligent" platform, one programmed to recognize networks.

To offset some of the investment costs, fixed-line operators will likely charge customers a fee for number portability.

Technical as well as legal issues practically make the EU's vision of universal service within Europe impossible. Bielka from Slovak Telecom emphasized that universal service would require a global solution. The exchange of information, processes and technical solutions would have to include operators at home as well as abroad.

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