Green light for ‘home zones’

14 Mar 2007

The Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) has announced that geographic numbers will be made available to mobile operators to operate ‘home-zonal’ services.

Home-zonal services will allow mobile phone customers to make and receive calls on their mobile phones in or near their homes at fixed-line prices. Callers can use either a mobile number or a geographic number when using the service.

A key condition of ComReg’s decision is that the prices charged to those availing of home-zonal services are set at fixed-line rates even though calls will be received on mobile handsets.

ComReg is also supporting changes to geographic number portability so that existing fixed-line customers will be able to move their telephone numbers entirely to mobile operators for this specific home-zonal service should they choose to do so.

Under a home-zonal service, a call to the home-zonal geographic number arriving at the home-zonal operator’s interconnection point would be converted by the operator to a mobile call and delivered to the customer’s mobile handset, provided the customer is currently within his home-zonal area. If the customer moves outside that area, the call would typically be delivered to voicemail or (for additional payment by the called party) would be forwarded to the customer’s present location.

ComReg identified as an attractive feature of this set-up the fact that within the home-zonal area, a customer’s mobile handset can be used as a universal ‘untethered’ tool for (a) receiving normal mobile calls, (b) making outgoing mobile calls at special home-zonal rates rates or (c) receiving fixed-line calls.

It said users of home-zonal services could manage their mobile calls pattern to their advantage by monitoring an icon or label that notifies their presence in the home-zonal area. Other users are not misled about the source of home-zonal calls as the user’s mobile Calling Line Identification is presented.

The primary risk identified by ComReg was that of a steady migration of home-zonal retail charges upwards towards regular mobile levels (due to rising home-zonal mobile termination rates), especially as the recipient mobile operator is unlikely to have to deal directly with the customer calling the home-zonal geographic number.

Objections to allocation/porting of geographic numbers to mobile operators were received principally from fixed-line operators, with mobile operators basically in favour, ComReg said.

Fixed-line operators claimed allowing for number portability amounted to an intervention on behalf of one sector of industry by ComReg. They also pointed to the fact that home-zonal services exist in Europe using just mobile numbers and this showed that there was no need for the allocation of fixed-line numbers.

ComReg said that it was aware of the concerns of fixed-line operators at the prospect of increased competition in their domain but that the issue is more one of “ensuring ComReg does not act as an impediment to such competition, rather than of ComReg driving it”. It said the action requested of it was to permit the use of geographic numbers by mobile operators, and it concluded it has a duty to do this provided the appropriate safeguards can be put in place.

Mike Byrne, commissioner, ComReg, said: “The key decisions in this document of opening the geographic number base to mobile operators in certain circumstances is an innovation for Ireland, which recognises that communications convergence is occurring in a whole range of fields.

“The document also recognises that this development should only be the start and that circumstances are sure to arise in the near future in which fixed-line operators will be justified in seeking allocations of mobile numbers for specific purposes.

“In making the decisions in this document that it has, ComReg is conscious that the new competitive pressures will not be universally welcomed, particularly by some smaller operators. ComReg is convinced, however, that those organisations are among the most agile and innovative and that they will find their own solutions to continue and reinforce their positions in the market.”

The nine respondents to ComReg’s consultation process were: ALTO, BT Ireland, Eircom, Gaelic Telecom, Imag!ne, Magnet Networks, Meteor, O2 and Vodafone.

By Niall Byrne