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Consumers will have to wait at least two years before they can move their mobile phone numbers between service providers almost instantaneously.
Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, on Monday sought to revive its stalled efforts to cut the length of time it takes for mobile users to transfer their phone numbers when changing networks – a process that currently takes two days.
The regulator first proposed a two-hour process in November 2007 and said it should take effect by September this year. However, Vodafone, supported by other large mobile network operators, challenged Ofcom’s proposal, and the Competition Appeal Tribunal struck down the regulator’s plans last September.
Ofcom said on Monday it was again considering the case for reducing the time to two hours.
The regulator is keen to further consumer choice and effective competition by ensuring mobile users have the ability to move their phone numbers to new providers easily.
Ofcom published a document for public consultation on Monday that sets out four options for reform, including a revised two-hour process. The change could take effect in 2011 or 2012 depending on which option was chosen, it said.
Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, 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.”
Mobile users in Australia, Canada, Ireland and the US can move their phone numbers to new providers in a matter of a few hours. Across Europe, the average time taken to move numbers is 8.5 days.
The UK is unusual in Europe in requiring mobile users to get permission from their existing providers if they want to move a number. Users must obtain a “porting authorisation code” and pass on the details to their new providers.
Ofcom said it had found evidence suggesting that consumers can find it difficult to obtain the codes from their providers, leading to significant delays.
“The extent of this problem varies considerably between providers and users,” it added.
Kevin Russell, chief executive of 3 UK, the smallest of the five mobile network operators, said the current process “fails both customers and competition”.
“Ofcom recognised the failings of the current regime in 2007 and if other UK operators had not derailed the process on a technicality, consumers would have had fast, easy switching this month,” he added.
O2, Orange and T-Mobile all supported Vodafone’s legal challenge to Ofcom’s previous proposal.
Vodafone highlighted how Ofcom’s research had found that the majority of consumers were satisfied with the existing process.
“We are always open to ideas for genuine improvements, but they must give real customer benefits at a proportionate cost,” it added.