Number Portability as Misdirection
With all the discussion of number portability it's easy to lose sight of the fact that we already have number portability. The issue should be why we have to invent a second layer just so that we can pretend it is a difficult problem.20-Apr-2003

From: Bob Frankston
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2003 11:22
ReSent: Sunday, April 20, 2003
To: dave@farber.net 'ip'

Once again, I'm making very simple statements that come across as outrageous because of the bigger lie that there is a telecommunications industry.

Simply think about a low speed bit stream going over the IP infrastructure.

Now compare it with the cost of a dedicated wire for each call and a lot of electromechanical gear and equipment designed to limit the quality. Once you are used to wide pipes on the Internet the very idea of installing and using a separate wire for each connection is too silly to even think about. Yet the reverse, replacing all of the wires with a few fibers of glass and the electro-mechanical gear with a few nanometers of semiconductor seems just as outrageous because factors of trillion to one cost savings are just not part of people's normal experience, especially those charged with the serious responsibility of setting policy.

After all, how could one seriously challenge the grandeur of a regional toll switch with floor and floors of relays chattering away and translation machines running quickly through decks of metal punched cards? The reality is that we have indeed replaced essentially all of the mechanical gear with digital emulations via SS7. But the new technology is invisible and thus doesn't displace our older images of relays chattering away. Think about the movies that showed whirling tape drives long after they stopped being relevant to computing because they were more "visual".


The term "number portability" is nothing but scam and a lie. OK, I'll tone it down a little for this version and just say it is about maintaining customer loyalty by creating a barrier to switching.

The idea that a phone company (or, still "the phone company") gets a call to a number and then must translate it is essentially a fraud perpetrated on those stuck with very bad metaphors. The number is first translated and so the call can be directed to the proper destination. Rather than calling this "number portability" we should recognize that the bug is that the FCC bequeaths the numbers on the carriers who then lease them to users.

Instead we should view the numbers as public assets being provided directly to the users or, perhaps, loaned to the carriers as custodians for the users. Even better if we go to an ownership model and people own the numbers for as long as they want. We can lease the numbers since there are, in the NANP (North American Numbering Plan) only 10 digits available which means that we have 1010 or ten billion numbers available we can't afford to squander such a limited supply (I know, there are less available thanks to inefficiencies such as reserving aaa-Klondike-5-nnnn). A few pennies per month can raise a lot of money to cover any administrative expenses and cost of maintain the history museum for all the old switching gear and the EPA superfund for the lead-acid batteries littering the landscape.

The hording of numbers and using them to keep customers hostage is a serious abuse of public trust. Claiming that number portability is difficult when it takes effort to assure that the existing translation tables are not used for the purpose (and, perhaps, engineered for the purpose of frustrating portability) is fraud even if it is done by carefully avoiding any implementation that might accidentally provide full portability.

But there is clear intent to make the process much more difficult than it need be.

In fact, "500-" numbers were simply a form of portability that, unlike "800-" numbers, had the caller pay. The bug was that rather than being local everywhere, it is "long distance" everywhere. But since there isn't any distance sensitivity to the cost (especially for the cellular system), we are talking about systems that have no other purpose than the creation and maintenance of billable entities. Accounting models can be used to create rationales for these charges but they are just models. It helps to maintain an efficient PSTN fabric in order to take advantage of the popular image of phone calls going through wires through switches in order to give the abstract models the patina of physicality.

I can't help going on to one more thought -- the 800/500 asymmetry goes away if we have the caller taking responsibility for the local portion. Right now pay phones have a special charge for 800 number usage in an attempt to patch a patch upon a patch upon a patch. Why not just have an explicit and transparent charge for use of the instrument and not tie it to the accidental properties of the fictional price of the call itself.

Once again, transparency is a threat -- after all, the clothes for this emperor have to be opaque otherwise we'd realize there is no emperor.


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