Portable numbers dial the future

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The Independent Online
In what the telecoms industry calls a "world first", BT customers in Derby will be able to switch to a cheaper phone service without changing their telephone number.

Nynex CableComms, the country's second-largest cable operator, launched "number portability" in its Derby franchise yesterday, and said it would extend the option to other franchise areas in coming months. Customers elsewhere in the country will soon be able to make the same choice, as other cable operators introduce their own schemes.

Number portability has been one of the most contentious issues in the long-running campaign by Oftel to increase competition in the UK telecoms market.

Don Cruickshank, the director-general of the industry's regulator, Oftel, vowed to continue to push for a broader introduction of the scheme throughout the country, working BT and its main competitors.

He said the ultimate goal was to have a single number that follows customers everywhere, and that could be used for fixed and mobile communications. But he and industry analysts agree that the prospect is still several years off, due to complex technical challenges.

Initially, portability will be available only within cable franchise areas and phone numbers cannot be kept if customers move to another region. The service will cost pounds 20 for residential customers and pounds 40 for businesses.

Nynex intends to roll out portability to its other franchise areas, including Stoke and areas of the South, by August. Telewest, the country's largest cable operator, said yesterday it would move quickly to introduce the option in its own franchise areas.

Independent studies have shown that customers - particularly small business - are resistent to switching to a non-BT supplier if it means giving up their own phone number.

"Businesses worry about the costs of replacing stationery, business cards and so on," said a spokesman for Nynex. "Our studies also show reluctance on the part of higher income customers, for whom price is not the only issue."

BT agreed to portability only following a ruling by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which suggested guidelines over how the costs of switching would be met. Consistent with the MMC proposals, the company releasing a phone number would bear about 70 per cent of the costs, with the new service provider covering the remaining 30 per cent.

The cable industry has long viewed lack of portability as one of the most important restraints on its growth in the UK. Once the option is more widely available, its is expected to give a boost to penetration rates for cable telephony.