Court to rule on phone number 'portability'

Communications Ministry is confident its decision is to the benefit of the consumer.

high court 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
high court 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Bezeq and the cellular companies petitioned the High Court of Justice Thursday to overturn a government decision that obligates them to offer phone number portability by the end of next week. They are requesting a delay in implementation of the program. "According to our interpretation of the law, the Communications Ministry was required by law to prepare the interfaces of the 15 companies which each operator could take and implement for their systems," said lawyer Zvi Agmon, who is representing Partner Communications, Cellcom and Pelephone in their joint petition to the court. "This was not done and instead [the government] threw everything to the operators. We did our best, but for us to prepare the interface, which for 15 companies with conflicting interests take its time and toll." Communications Minister Ariel Attias and Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson decided Wednesday not to extend the September 1 deadline to implement number portability for three months as the law allows. As such, consumers should expect to be able to keep their phone numbers, should they so desire, if they switch service providers beginning next month. If the court overrules the decision, however, the program could only go into effect by mid-2007, when the three cellular companies said they would be ready. Bezeq, which served its own separate petition Thursday morning, has said it needs until the end of next year. Communications Ministry spokesman Golan Yossifan responded that while the ministry had not yet received the petitions, it was confident its decision was to the benefit of the consumer and that it would be able to show in court that the companies had not done what was required to prepare for the program. Ronen Regev-Cabir, head of research at consumer watch group Emun Hatsibur further dismissed the petition as a another delay tactic for the telecom companies who stand to lose profit from the higher level of competition number portability will bring. "Where were they with their complaints against the government over the last two years that the program has been in planning," Regev-Cabir said. "When they want something done [in their favor], they wield enough power to influence the ministry, but this time they didn't. It certainly is delay tactics." While none of the 15 companies will be ready come September 1, Regev-Cabir said the fact that the larger companies were not ready, was a reflection on the whole industry. Lawyer Agmon, meanwhile, argued that that the experience of other countries that had already been through the number portability process showed that it took on average three years to implement. Had the government prepared the interface, he added, the time table given may have been reasonable. Meanwhile, each company will be fined NIS 322,000 if they are not ready by next Friday and NIS 6,450 for each day they remain unequipped thereafter. "The companies will definitely not be ready but the fine is nothing for them because they gain much more by stalling number portability," said Tsahi Avraham, communications and technology analyst at Clal Finance Batucha. Avraham added that the program will increase the churn rate (percentage of customers that leave to another provider) within the industry but its immediate impact depends on how long it takes to implement. By way of example, he said Partner had a churn rate of 13.6% in 2005, which he expects would rise to around 18% for 2007 if the program were available immediately. Avraham noted, however, that he did not expect Partner to be affected as strongly by number portability as some other companies due to the strength of its brand and the belief that older providers such as Pelephone tend to lose more in such processes. Industry observers agreed that number portability would benefit those companies who have market share to gain, most notably the fourth cellular provider Mirs and Bezeq's biggest competitor, HOT. "It will definitely allow HOT to gain market share because it doesn't have old customers to lose yet," Avraham said. "The problem is that HOT itself is not ready and we need to wait until they are all ready to see the effect."