Ofcom is set to enable UK consumers to switch mobile networks within a two-hour window without needing to change phone numbers, a move that is expected to further stimulate competition in the sector.
Mobile phone users looking to switch mobile networks who want to keep their existing number currently have to wait five days, a delay that acts as a significant deterrent for many customers. Ofcom said in July that it would force operators to complete the switch within two days but yesterday said it would enable customers to hop between networks within hours. New regulations on mobile phone switching will eventually impose a two-hour deadline on network operators.
Around 60 per cent of people who change network provider in the UK take a new number, an inconvenience most would prefer to live without. The length of time it takes to switch between UK providers while keeping the same number pales in comparison with other countries such as Australia where two hours is the standard.
Ed Richards, the chief exec-utive of Ofcom, said: "Consumers deserve a quick and easy process for switching while retaining their number. These measures will promote competition in the UK mobile market and act directly in the consumer's interest."
An Ofcom spokeswoman added: "Consumers should feel like they own their phone number, that it is their property, so they can take advantage of the best deals in the market."
Ofcom has given the country's main mobile operators a decent amount of time to enact the change. Companies including Vodafone, Orange and O2 have until April next year to reduce the time it takes to switch to two days and until September 2009 to comply with the two-hour standard.
Steve Weller, head of communications at uSwitch, the price comparison service, hailed the new regulations but said it was disappointing that operators had been given such a long timeframe to comply, noting that the process was completed within six months in Ireland.
While 3, the smallest network owner in the UK, has pushed for the time it takes to switch providers to come down over the past six months, the more established mobile companies were less enthused. A spokesman for Vodafone said: "The industry is already working towards a two-day porting process from April 2008 onwards. The case for a further change so soon after looks unconvincing."
O2 argued that allowing the company that is taking on the customer to instigate the process could led to greater levels of mis-selling or slamming where the customer is switched without their permission.
A spokesman said: "We are concerned about Ofcom's proposal to make number porting a recipient-led process rather than a donor-led one. We feel that recipient-led number porting may not be in the customer's best interest as it lends itself to slamming and mis-selling."
However, Ofcom described that concern as "a red herring", pointing out that it was con-sidering making it mandatory for network operators to clamp down on mis-selling after a voluntary industry code failed to stop rising levels of incidents.
The regulator also argued that in countries where portability has been made easier, levels of mis-selling have not risen as a result.