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Ofcom Consults on the Future of UK Phone Numbers and Porting UPDATE

Thursday, April 11th, 2019 (12:54 pm) - Score 3,334

The UK communications regulator, Ofcom, has launched a shotgun blast of three new consultations today that cover how the fixed line broadband ISP and phone market will need to change as consumers are migrated from old analogue telephone services (PSTN) to new digital Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) platforms.

At present operators like Openreach (BT) tend to supply a copper phone line to consumers when ordered or will bundle it at the same time with a broadband service, although the latter is currently still considered to be somewhat of an optional extra (i.e. you get the phone service first and then broadband).

However today most of us only take a landline for broadband (i.e. fewer and fewer people each year still make calls via their landline) and the roll-out of ultrafast Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) based networks, which can only carry data and not analogue phone calls (i.e. optical fibres carry data in laser light, while older metallic lines use electrical signals), means that all of this is about to go through a fundamental change.

Back in 2012 UK people made a total of 103 billion minutes of landline calls, which has fallen to just 54 billion in 2017. Over the same period mobile call minutes have increased from 132.1 billion to 148.6 billion. This gives a good indication of how the market has shifted and where it’s going.

In the future Openreach’s approach, as well as that of other operators, will be reversed as they move from analogue to IP / VoIP based digital communications. In other words, broadband will become the primary service you buy and phone (voice calling) the optional extra. A lot of alternative fixed wireless and full fibre (FTTP) broadband ISPs already do this but the wider more established market is playing catch-up.

The shift to all-IP style networks also creates new challenges, such as in terms of how you support vulnerable landline phone-only consumers (often elderly users), maintain access to emergency services (e.g. during power outages, since most IP based calling platforms will cease to function without battery backup) and ensure that it’s possible to more effectively port (switch) phone numbers to all sorts of different IP based platforms.

NOTE: Check out our article – The Changing Face of UK Home Phone Lines and Broadband Provision – for a bit more background. The BSG has also highlighted some of the Challenges in Moving to All-IP Networks.

Ofcom already has a number of work programmes on-going to investigate various different aspects of this process (e.g. the proposed blockchain approach to number porting) and in keeping with that they’ve today launched three more consultations to cover some related aspects of the wider transition.

Promoting trust in telephone numbers

As part of Ofcom’s work to tackle nuisance and scam calls, we believe a common database of phone numbers is needed to enable phone companies to verify that Caller ID numbers are genuine.

A common database could also help improve the process of letting people and businesses keep (or ‘port’) their number when they switch providers.

We are inviting comments on our initial views by 6th June 2019. We intend to publish a summary of responses to this consultation and outline next steps in the summer.

Future of telephone numbers

We are inviting views on how landline numbers should evolve to keep up with changes in how they are used – including whether area codes and their associated location information should be retained.

We are also looking at whether certain phone numbers might continue to be used by people to make small payments.

This consultation closes on 20th June 2019, and we plan to set out further policy proposals for this area later this year.

Future of interconnection and call termination

Finally, we are seeking views on what the move to internet calls might mean for our regulation of ‘interconnection’ – the process of ensuring all calls made from one network to another are connected.

The move may also have implications for how we regulate what phone companies charge each other for connecting calls between their networks.

This consultation closes on 6th June 2019. Responses will inform our next review of interconnection and termination markets, which we expect to consult on early in 2020.

The ‘future of telephone numbers’ consultation is one of the more interesting aspects because VoIP style services do not need area codes to tell them where to send a call. One option that Ofcom may consider here is whether or not area codes could be scrapped, which might enable you to have a number that never changes no matter where you are or what service / network you use.

Ensuring such numbers can be used on lots of different platforms is an extremely complicated problem, albeit an achievable one. On the other hand many older users tend to be opposed to the idea of losing geographic meaning from area codes and it could make filtering calls harder, while younger people find the whole idea more enticing.

Chair of ITSPA, Eli Katz, said:

“This consultation phase is a crucial step in shaping the future of our entire industry. We welcome the opportunity to engage and indeed are positive around the long-term benefits that Ofcom are looking to tackle. We also welcome Ofcom’s acceptance that as we transition to an all-IP world, certain areas of regulation (Interconnection for example) may need a review to ensure the competitiveness of the UK telecoms sector is maintained.

ITSPA welcome the concept of forming a central database of numbers. This has long been necessary to tackle some of the industry pains of the past decade, particularly nuisance calls and porting. We have been heavily involved in Ofcom’s recent blockchain proof of concept, which is being looked into as a possible solution for number management and number portability.

Whilst this is a positive step, we were concerned by Ofcom’s position that they expect industry to lead in the wider development around the database concept. ITSPA remains of the belief that Ofcom must play some active role in its development. There have been too many industry false starts on number portability over the past 10 years for it not to require some Ofcom leadership.

Beyond the blockchain proof of concept plan, we would urge the regulator to outline its expected outcome in terms of consumer porting experience to assist the industry in developing a more advanced platform and would be happy to support them in this project.”

As usual we’ll be keeping a close eye on all this to see what conclusions the regulator reaches.

UPDATE 12th April 2019

Updated the article to add a comment from the Internet Telephony Services Providers’ Association (ITSPA).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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21 Responses
  1. Joe says:

    The issue with losing area codes for me:

    I know if a call is from my village (and therefore I might answer it when busy) as opposed from a generic number which could be a tiresome cold call.

    Local numbers are shorter so easy to remember. Any general number will by its nature have to be much longer. (esp if we end up merging land/mobile or start decoupling numbers from lines (I could have multiple numbers for different purposes on the same line)

    1. Karen says:

      But why does there need to be a “number”. VoIP systems such as Skype etc work of names etc. Do we really need to have a number?

    2. Joe says:

      names create privacy issues.

  2. Michael V says:

    Phone numbers will need to change. Multiple areas around Britain have had a 2nd dialing code introduced. 04 & 06 are not in use these could be introduced for VoIP numbers maybe & be shorter than the average landline numbers with 5 didgets in the dialing code & 6 in the users personal number.

    It was great when ofcom introduced non geographical 03 for businesses. I think we will see less geographical numbers in the decades to come.

    1. Alex says:

      What? There is NO location in the UK that currently has multiple area codes.

      Indeed, steps were taken to avoid this in the 1990s. For example, London was moved to the single, 020 area code with 8-digit local numbers instead of having the old 0171 / 0181 overlaid by additional codes.

      Likewise Cardiff, which moved from (01222) xxxxxx to (029) xxxx xxxx instead of keeping 01222 and adding additional 01xxx codes on top.

      It is likely that we may join the likes of the USA, Canada, Spain etc and start using multiple, overlaid area codes in the future – but we’re not there yet!

  3. Paul says:

    Number porting is a huge problem across industry, challenge here is who pays for the change? You have large and small companies involved in VOIP (SIP), it’s not like when the MAC key was introduced for ADSL migrations as OR own the network.

    A decision does need to be made, sooner the better really but the OFCOM working group has been going on for years without any major changes. Yes it’s made procedural changes, but until it’s a central place the process will continue to fail as it often does now.

  4. Mark says:

    Future is a long time, suspect copper will still be around for a few decades yet, nearest cabinet to me 2km, main problem as with fastershire months of trying to get permission over private property.see it being no problems in urban areas though.

  5. Optimist says:

    Businesses and others using andlines will find the requirement to dial the area code for local calls irksome as it will increase the risk of dialling wrong numbers.

    So in areas running out of numbers why not revive the practice of introducing short area codes with eight digit local numbers? The argument that people don’t like changing numbers is phony (pardon the pun) as number translation could continue indefinitely for existing numbers using the old area code. Local callers from landlines would be prefer to be able to dial eight digits rather then eleven.

    1. Optimist says:

      Sorry typo “landlines” rather than “andlines”!

    2. 125us says:

      It seems like a lot of effort for a market that’s dying. Landline calls have halved in seven years. Most new households that form don’t use or take a landline service.

    3. TheFacts says:

      We dial the full number to and from mobiles. Not a problem.

    4. Optimist says:

      125us: If landlines are dying why are some area codes becoming full?

    5. MikeP says:

      The inability of well over 50% of the nation to understand that the London area code is 020, not 020[389],means that most everyone in London dials the full number anyway.

      It mattered in the days of rotary dials, but today????

    6. Optimist says:

      MikeP: The problem is not so much having to dial the area code, but WHICH area code. In Norwich we have six-digit local numbers, easy to remember and write down without error. Not a problem having to dial 01603 first, but it WOULD be a problem if I have to accurately record all ten digits following the leading zero. Ofcom are threatening to introduce full eleven-digit dialling here despite the fact that a new code will soon be necessary anyway owing to urban expansion.

      You are right about London. When I lived there my number started off as 01 658xxxx, then 081 658xxxx, 0181 658xxxx, finally 020 8658xxxx and there was confusion as BT and Oftel didn’t make it clear for how long parallel running would continue, not knowing the area code from the local part of the number.

      I think because of this Ofcom decided to abandon the move towards wide area codes and eight digit local numbers, but I think that was the wrong decision. If a change is necessary, then it is much easier to cope with prepending existing local number with two extra digits, e.g. 21xxxxxx, then new numbers 22xxxxxx, than it is with a patternless jumble of digits as is the case with mobiles.

    7. TheFacts says:

      How do you cope with writing mobile numbers? Some places have full number dialling now.

    8. Optimist says:

      TheFacts: In geographical areas where the whle number has to be dialled, at at least the area code is the same so you don’t need to jot that bit down. Mobile numbers are different because only the first two digits are always the same.

      Landlines are here to stay, at least for businesses, so I see no point in mandating full number dialling (eleven digits) when local dialling (between five and eight digits) is convenient and works perfectly well.

    9. TheFacts says:

      ‘Not a problem having to dial 01603 first, but it WOULD be a problem if I have to accurately record all ten digits following the leading zero.’

      So you are OK with 6 digits but struggle with 10 when someone gives you a number outside Norwich?

      First world problem.

    10. Optimist says:

      TheFacts: Why stop at abolishing area codes within countries, why continue with country codes? Just allocate numbers randomly all over the world. If you get one digit wrong, wake up some complete stranger on the other side of the world and get a huge phone bill, that’s not a problem then?

      BTW local dialling is not the only advantage of landlines. Call quality is usually far superior than on mobiles, which often break up and drop out.

    11. TheFacts says:

      A 4G to 4G can be better quality than a cordless phone on a landline. If you can get it.

    12. Alex says:

      The tidy freak in me would love to see Ofcom finish the job and move everywhere to (0xx) xxxx xxxx format, but I don’t see any real world reason to do so. It’s a lot of upheaval but with minimal benefit – 8 digits numbers aren’t very memorable and they aren’t great for local identity either. Look at Northern Ireland where there’s just the single 028 area code. Neat on paper, but no obvious local identifier – the location information is buried in the first two digits of the phone number rather than separate and distinct as a unique area code is.

      If you dial a lot of numbers in the local area and don’t want to include the code, you could always use a phone with memory buttons and programme one of them to dial the code with a single touch. When local dialling was scrapped in Bournemouth, I set one of my work phone’s memory keys to dial “9 01202” so I could get an outside line and dial the code with a single key press. Total number of button presses unchanged from the old “9” then six digits.

  6. TheFacts says:

    ‘patternless jumble of digits as is the case with mobiles.’

    That’s the problem with phone numbers.

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