Cellnet in battle over number portability

Telephone troubles: Mobile rivals angry over 'delaying tactics' Oftel unveils plans for more lines
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The Independent Online
Cellnet, the mobile telephone network jointly owned by BT and Securicor, has launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to try to prevent the introduction of mobile number portability, where customers can change networks but keep their existing number.

The extent of the lobbying effort was revealed in a letter Cellnet has sent to service providers, the retailers which buy wholesale air time from mobile networks and sell it to the public. Orange, the digital mobile company, is preparing a formal complaint to the industry regulator, Oftel, about what it claims are Cellnet's deliberate delaying tactics.

The introduction of number portability for fixed phone lines is already under way and Oftel is consulting with the industry on how to bring in mobile number portability. The regulator hopes to finalise plans and give a specific time-scale by the end of this year. Supporters of the concept see the lack of number portability as a crucial obstacle to the development of competition.

Cellnet's letter, dated 18 June, says number portability is "being pushed by Orange". It suggests it will be bad for service providers' businesses. It continues: "Oftel does not appear to have requested comments from service providers, even though the implications of number portability will have consequences for both your customers and your systems ... service providers introducing number portability will need to introduce new business processes as well as modifying billing and administration systems to enable a customer to move networks while taking their number with them."

It concludes with criticism of Oftel: "Given the impact on [service providers'] business the introduction of number portability will have, we believe Oftel should have asked service providers for their views."

Yesterday Orange attacked the claims made in the letter. Paul Franklin, Orange's director of regulatory affairs, said: "Cellnet is using whatever tactics it can to delay number portability. It's patently untrue to say it is bad for service providers' business. In fact, it's quite the reverse, because customers could switch networks without changing their service provider."

The letter, from Richard Davis, Cellnet's head of channel sales, encloses a copy of the company's response to the Oftel consultation paper. In the document Cellnet argues customers are not interested in keeping their mobile number when changing network: "Customers in general do not perceive their mobile numbers to be of particular value." It concludes: "The benefits of mobile portability would not outweigh the cost of implementation."

Cellnet has 41 per cent of the total mobile phone market but has slipped behind Vodafone and Orange in the fast expanding digital business. The Government has said all analogue phone customers should move to digital by 2005. By June this year Vodafone had grabbed 32 per cent of the digital mobile market with 26 per cent for Orange and Cellnet trailing on 22 per cent. Analysts have pointed to risks for both Cellnet and Mercury One- 2-One, which has 20 per cent of the digital market, if they fall behind the two front-runners in the digital revolution.

A spokesman for Cellnet was unavailable for comment yesterday.