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Ofcom wants to ease the pain of switching mobile networks. Good luck

It may possibly encourage feckless disloyalty, who knows

UK regulator Ofcom has started a consultation aimed at consumers to find out how hard it is to switch mobile phone networks, and eventually put in place processes which reduce the pain of switching, while also eliminating “slamming” where a company fraudulently migrates a customer.

The consultation is a follow-up to previous work Ofcom did on switching for broadband which made moving broadband simpler and smoother, essentially by introducing a ‘one touch’ process for millions of customers of providers using the Openreach copper network, including BT, EE, Sky and TalkTalk.

As well as the mobile switching consultation, Ofcom is also examining consumers’ experiences of switching ‘triple play’ – landline, broadband and pay TV – services between providers using the Openreach, Virgin Media cable or Sky satellite networks.

“Consumers should be able to switch their mobile providers with minimum hassle to take advantage of the best deals on the market," said Sharon White, Ofcom chief executive. “Ofcom has recently made switching easier for millions of broadband users, and we are now focusing on improving the process for mobile customers.”

Mike Conradi, a partner specialising in regulatory telecoms advice at global law firm DLA Piper, thinks this is all a bit too late. "The UK was rightly proud of being a world pioneer in launching mobile number portability in the late 1990s. However for some years now the UK's processes have fallen short of international best practice in terms of time and ease of transfer. By now it's almost too late - number individual number portability isn't as important as it used to be in an age where consumers are more concerning about Facebook and WhatsApp than receiving regular voice calls or SMS messages" he said. Conradi believes that a more important focus of OFCOM's attention should be to facilitate bulk-porting of numbers - needed, for example, where an MVNO (like Virgin Mobile) wants to switch from one host mobile network to another. In his opinion this is more of a significant obstacle to effective competition in the UK.

The briefing document for the consultation claims that “our proposals at this stage do not drill down to specific process designs or costs. Rather, they give a high-level, indicative assessment of how some potential process reforms could reduce consumer harm, and cost estimates to implement and operate them".

The biggest change that Ofcom is considering is removing the need for the customer to contact their current network, get a PAC code, and pass it on to the acquiring network. The system might instead look at a way the customer could give authorisation to the acquiring network to approach the current network on the customer’s behalf.

An alternative strategy might be to keep the PAC code system, but build something which makes it very much easier than the current system, essentially spending ten minutes on hold with customer services who then put you through to retentions, who spend ten minutes offing you the moon on a stick (or maybe an iPhone) to stay, before grudgingly texting you a PAC code.

Ofcom suggests a system where you can send a text, or log into a website to request a PAC code.

While the consultation is aimed at consumers and not the industry a TalkTalk spokesperson told El Reg that: “TalkTalk is committed to making Britain better off, and we have led calls to make switching simpler for many years. We welcome Ofcom’s new consultation, which is a step in the right direction, but we strongly believe they need to go further."

TalkTalk also sought to re-emphasise its views on the BT/EE and Three/O2 deals along with its view that Openreach should be separated from BT, adding: “Ultimately however, switching only benefits consumers where markets are competitive. With a wave of consolidation threatening to undermine consumer choice and inflate prices, TalkTalk will continue to call for a competitive market that puts the interests of consumers first.”

A number of UK MVNOs, who asked not to be identified, highlighted the issue of getting the actual mechanics of number portability to work. Most have numbers issued by their host network, but this limits what a network might want to do with the service as the MNO can’t then distinguish between incoming calls between itself and its MVNO, or a number of MVNOs.

This reduces the MVNO’s ability to offer some special features, such as call recording for financial services organisations.

If an MVNO uses the host network numbers then portability is usually quite straightforward. If, however, an MVNO wants to set up a porting agreement with its own numbers the process becomes very complicated.

The Ofcom document states: “We believe that switching processes are best improved by the industry taking a leading role in their design, and we are currently discussing technical aspects with the mobile operators."

"The options we have identified at this stage build on existing processes, which should help to minimise their costs," it added, but that may not be the best way to do things. But then, that's what consultations are for. You can read the consultation document here and respond here. ®

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