Ofcom Consults on the Future of UK Phone Numbers and Porting

telephone united kingdom communications

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.

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.

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

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