As the government deliberates allowing mobile phone companies more time to prepare for number portability, consumer watch group Public Trust, or Emun Hatsibur, has called for its implementation, as scheduled, on September 1 as a first essential step to opening the market to competition.
"There are some very loud voices advocating competition in the Israeli cellular market but they are not dealing with the main issues as far as the consumer is concerned," said Ronen Regev Cabir, head of research at Emun. "After identifying the non-competitive nature of the market and the reasons for the lack of competition, we concluded that number portability is essential to opening the market. But this alone is not enough, it's just one of a number of important problems that we need to solve."
Emun prepared a report on competition in the cellular industry in light of the current debate surrounding number portability whereby the cellular companies have requested a delay to the scheduled change. With implementation of number portability, customers would be able to keep their phone numbers when they switch service providers - because of the inconvenience in changing numbers, many customers are loath to make a move to a new provider.
If the extension is granted, it would be the second as the move initially was slated for February.
Under the law, the Communications Ministry can grant a three-month extension to December 1, which it is expected to provide although the cellular companies say they need even more time.
The three providers - Cellcom, Partner Communications and Pelephone - claim their systems would only be ready between June and September next year and market sources indicate that they would take their case to the High Court if not granted adequate time.
A spokesman for the Communications Ministry said Minister Ariel Attias would make his decision on the issue shortly.
Meanwhile, Emun compared Israel's reluctance to other countries in Western Europe where "the whole process took a few months to a year-and-half to implement in markets much larger than Israel," Regev Cabir noted.
Bottom line, he added, is that it's in the cellular companies interests not to have number portability and they will do what they can to delay it. The carriers fear they will lose customers who, with the change, may be less hesitant to to switch providers if they can keep their phone number.
For this reason, Emun prepared its report, to provide the regulators with a reference point to what is blocking competition in the market and, according to Regev Cabir, stress to them that the issue of number portability is the start of the process and not an end- point achievement.
Some of the other issues dealt with in the report include a called for changing the companies' pricing structure by obliging each to set one price for calls within their network and calls to other networks.
"This way you make the interconnect fees redundant because it is a part of the standard price of the calls," Regev Cabir said.
The report also tackled the confusing marketing strategies of companies and the difficulty involved in taking one's handset along when changing providers.
"What is clear is that it is in the interest of the cellular companies to make sure that the market remains as uncompetitive as it is now, so there is no point in waiting for them to solve these problems because their marketing strategies are what cause most of the problems," Regev Cabir said.