Cell number portability takes effect today

Rocky start predicted; new initiative beset by technology bugs, say analysts.

cellular biz 88 224 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
cellular biz 88 224
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
As the country's phone companies have been gearing up to the kick-off of the number portability program, analysts and industry leaders are anticipating a rocky start for the launch of the initiative, slated to start on Sunday. "There could be a million different problems with the program," Richard Gussow, a research analyst at Deutsche Bank, told The Jerusalem Post. "When the companies first began running tests on a parallel system for the portability technology, there was a low success rate, but in the most recent tests, the error rate went down and while the companies are saying that everything will run smoothly, with any new project such as this, there will always be bugs. The question is how long it will take to work out the problems." The Communications Ministry's number portability program will allow cell phone subscribers to take their numbers with them between cell phone companies within three hours of making the request. Switching between fixed-line carriers will take longer as technicians are needed to update the infrastructure. The Communications Ministry believes that the lack of portability has been one of the main barriers preventing consumers from switching providers. The portability plan was meant to start in September 2006; however none of the communications companies met the deadline. Led by Bezeq, a group of companies petitioned the High Court of Justice to overturn a government decision obligating that start date, which prompted the Communications Ministry to open a dialogue with all the country's phone companies - cellular, landline, and cable - to find a realistic date for implementation of the portability plan while still insisting that it must start in 2007. They settled on September 2007, but the ministry was forced once again to delay the program's start after Bezeq said over the summer that it would not be able to meet the ministry's preferred dates of September or October. If the companies do not meet the December deadline, they will be fined NIS 300,000 for every day they are late. "The companies have been running tests and conducting internal checks and pilot programs and all claim that they will be ready," Avi Yavan, CEO of the technology consulting company Aginix Communication Ltd., told the Post. "We expect however, that there will be problems and they will come in two different forms - one will be sorting out the bureaucracy between the companies and the second problem will come from the technology itself - while pilot programs have been conducted, there is sure to be issues with how the new technology will work together," said Yavan pointing to the fact that no company wants to be responsible for the program not working correctly. "If that were to happen, that would be very bad for the company,". An official in the Communications Ministry predicts that from the standpoint of the phone providers, identification of new customers is going to pose the biggest problem over the first few weeks of the program. "For example, before a customer wants to switch provider, he is going to need identify himself to HOT, which in turn will have to identify him to Bezeq. Right now, we are not sure if everything is worked out for this to happen smoothly." Meanwhile, consumers are going to have to contend with a system in which they will not know how much they will pay for a call before making it. "Right now, if you are a Cellcom customer, you know how much you pay for calls to Pelephone customers, but under the new system where you don't know if someone switched to a different provider, it is impossible to know before dialing how much you will be paying," said Gussow, explaining that before a call is put through, a recording will prompt the consumer, informing him that he has dialed an out-of-network number. The beginning of the portability era in Israel however, might prove to go off without a hitch as problems are only really expected to result from the expected crush of phone customers looking to switch providers. "There is a strong feeling that customers really don't know about this program and don't know that it is starting on Sunday," said Gussow. The Communications Ministry's much-hyped portability promotional campaign is not slated to begin until next week, at the earliest. "We really didn't see any need to begin advertising before the program as this is something that is going to last forever - the program is not going to be over anytime soon," said Yechiel Shavi, Communications Ministry spokesman. Once the campaign does kick-off it will feature advertisements in print, on radio and on television. Additionally, the ministry's Web site will feature information regarding the details of the program. "Our objective in launching the campaign is to ensure that all of the country's citizens are aware of what is happening and know that they can now switch easily between providers," Shavi told the Post last week. "Number portability will create a revolution in the communications market and we want everyone to know about it."