Ofcom calls on mobile phone groups to ease number switch

Watchdog review seeks to force providers to speed up porting 'significantly'
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The communications watchdog plans to crack down on mobile phone companies dragging their feet when customers want to switch their phone number to a rival, demanding it is carried out within hours rather than days.

Ofcom yesterday published proposals to slash the time taken to transfer a number, saying parts of the process should speed up "significantly".

The regulator has already forced the UK operators – O2, Vodafone, Orange, 3 and T-Mobile – to reduced the transfer time from five working days to two. Should the proposals be passed, the regulator will be able to fine companies that don't comply up to 10 per cent of their revenues.

Currently, mobile operators are under obligation to switch numbers "as soon as reasonably practicable on reasonable terms," according to the Communications Act passed in 2003.

Ofcom's chief executive Ed Richards said: "Ofcom would like to see easier, faster and more convenient processes to enable consumers to keep their number when they switch mobile provider.

"Our proposals take a fresh look at this issue to ensure that consumers are getting the most from their mobile service," he added. The process is currently under consultation until October 26, and Ofcom hope to have the policy in place sometime in 2011.

The regulator found that nearly one-third of people in the UK have switched mobile provider in the last two years, while 35 per cent of those polled were unaware they could keep their number after switching. "We see certain problems with the current process and room to make the process work better for consumers," Ofcom said.

Under new proposals the regulator hopes a switch – known as porting – will take a day or even a couple of hours after it found that 71 per cent of consumers found it important to keep their number after switching companies.

Andrew Harrison, chief executive of The Carphone Warehouse, said the proposals were a step forward. He said: "Speeding up the number porting process will make buying a mobile phone as good an experience as it is in many other European countries."

Currently, if a customer wants to switch to a rival provider and take their number, they have to contact the original operator to ask for their Porting Authorisation Code, or PAC, which they then give to their new provider. Ofcom said it had found evidence that consumers faced difficulties and delays to get the PAC code from their providers. In the rest of Europe, the new provider switches the number, without the consumer becoming involved.

The European Commission recently proposed that porting times should come down to one working day.

Ofcom said: "The consultation seeks views on whether to continue with the current arrangement or to change this to a more immediate process managed by the customer's new provider. This would mean that customers can avoid the inconvenience of obtaining a PAC from their original provider."

The regulator had attempted to reduce the porting time to two hours in 2007 as part of a series of wider proposals, but it was appealed by Vodafone and sent back to Ofcom.

Vodafone said yesterday: "Our goal is a system that's convenient, works reliably and lets customers make informed decisions without compromising vital consumer safeguards against slamming, mis-selling and fraud. We are always open to ideas for genuine improvements, but they must give real customer benefits at a proportionate cost."

The regulator also plans to simplify the current system of mobile calls to ported numbers, potentially saving about £26m over 10 years, "which could be passed on to consumers," Ofcom said.