• United States

Carriers brace for number portability

Nov 10, 20034 mins

The nation’s largest wireless service providers are scrambling behind the scenes to ensure that systems for providing wireless number portability are up and running by the government’s Nov. 24 deadline.

The nation’s largest wireless service providers are scrambling behind the scenes to ensure that systems for providing wireless number portability are up and running by the government’s Nov. 24 deadline.

According to a report released last week by consulting firm Mobile Competency, service providers are not as ready as perhaps they should be.

“None of the wireless service providers have finalized intercarrier [service-level agreements] with all five of the other national providers,” says Bob Egan, president of Mobile Competency. These agreements are critical in the success of ubiquitous number porting between carriers, he says.

T-Mobile disputes this point and says it has finalized agreements with five of the largest providers, but it still is testing its systems like its competitors.

Once the providers finalize SLAs they then have to test porting based on these agreements, Egan says. “Carrier networks need to be 99.999% reliable to successfully support porting.” Based on the amount of work that still needs to get done, the carriers aren’t close, he says.

“Here is an industry, by its own lack of readiness, is heading toward disaster,” Egan says. He says a salesperson who depends on their wireless phone cannot afford to have it go dead for several hours as their number is ported.

This is why SLAs are critical, Egan says. Verizon Wireless says without such agreements other service providers could try to hold up porting requests. “The FCC is not requiring agreements between carriers, but from a practical perspective they are necessary,” says Tony Melone, vice president of network operations at Verizon Wireless.

These SLAs, which for example Verizon Wireless has with T-Mobile, Nextel and Sprint PCS, spell out how porting requests are validated, pass through a third-party database and are completed.

“We were looking for more guidance from the FCC on this matter,” he says. But as it stands today it’s up to individual carriers to agree on porting requirements, such as mandating five customer facts are necessary to validate a porting request. The five information bits could be name, address, Social Security number, home phone and mobile phone numbers.

The fear is that if there isn’t an SLA, a carrier that wants to hold up requests will say they need 20 pieces of information on a customer to validate a request, Melone says.

While most large wireless service providers indicated they are working toward carrier-wide SLAs, these agreements are one of the last steps in supporting wireless number portability. Several carriers indicated they’ve upgraded networks and customer support systems for the past two to three years to support porting.

These industrywide upgrades could cost as much as $1 billion, says the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

“It has probably taken a lot more effort [to prepare for porting] than the general public realizes,” says Rich Schmidt director of technology and product realization at Cingular Wireless. “We have been working on it in earnest since 2000 with preliminary work starting in ’98.”

Cingular estimates it will spend up to $237 million on porting by year-end and anticipates spending another $200 million next year to support the feature.

Cingular says it also deployed a new data architecture based on IBM gear. The system now lets the carrier provide new features from multimedia messaging to downloading ring tones. But Schmidt says that the upgrade was also needed to support porting.

The six largest providers also established new call centers to handle porting requests, questions and complaints.

But will the carriers be ready by Nov. 24?

“I can’t guarantee that depending on volume that at first everything is going to be without flaws or adjustments,” Cingular’s Schmidt says.

Verizon Wireless says it has 95% of network testing complete. But Melone says one of the biggest challenges is to be sure that each carrier’s system can talk and validate porting requests quickly.

With the ink barely dry on most intercarrier SLAs and testing still underway, Mobile Competency’s Egan is recommending all users wait until the end of the first quarter of 2004 before they port their phone numbers.