The Wild Wild West Indies

Above: Mr Cris Seecheran, Chief Executive Officer – TATT (center right) shakes hands with Charles Carter EVP Legal, Regulatory, Carrier Services and Corporate Secretary TSTT at the signing of the Number Portability agreement with PortingXS at the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago. Also in photo from left are: Kirk Rudder, Manager Value Added Services, Massy Communications Limited; Peter Gillette, Chairman, Open Telecom; Mr. Ronald Vlasman Chief Executive Officer, Porting XS, B.V. Chief Operations Officer, Fiachra Groarke, Digicel (Trinidad &Tobago) Limited; Narissa Mustapha General Manager; Lisa Communications Limited; Brian Collins, Managing Director Columbus Communications Trinidad Limited.  Photo by Brian Lopes, courtesy TATT.

So Trinidad and Tobago will soon benefit from number portability.  At least on mobile phones.  At least that’s what the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago says.

Following weeks of press releases and social media blasts announcing the launch of number portability in Trinidad and Tobago on March 31st 2016, the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) hosted another ICT Open Forum on the matter at its offices on Thursday March 3rd.   

The event was, as always, a well put together affair, with opening remarks and speeches which alternated between TATT patting itself on its back, and regaling the audience on the benefits of number portability.   Through this all, I stood in stark amazement.  You see, to understand the import of what took place, and is ostensibly taking place, you have to have a little context. 

TATT started this journey over 5 years ago in 2010, when they signaled their intention to proceed towards the introduction of number portability in Trinidad and Tobago. As is their wont, they proceeded by first issuing a document for consultation “Implementation Plan to Number Portability.”    As is the practice, the Plan underwent two rounds of consultation and, after two years, that was that. 

The only challenge was that the plan was pretty sparse on concrete content – it recommended that porting will be limited between like networks (fixed to fixed, mobile to mobile), it also recommended that Trinidad and Tobago with pursue the “All Call Query” or ACQ approach to number portability and it further stated that there would be some form of undefined cost-recovery associated with its implementation.  Other than that, however, nothing else was concrete.  Everything else was referred to technical committees which TATT promised to pull together.

Fast-Forward (pun intended) to 2013, where TATT pulls together these technical committees, with the ostensible objective of launching Number Portability within a year. As the CEO of TATT would tell us, that began a process of dozens of meetings, hundreds of e-mails as TATT and the representative of a subset of operators in the fixed and mobile arena held closed door meetings with a view to hammering out the way forward. The outputs of these technical committees have never been released.

And there were successes.  By the end of 2013, the Committees had agreed to the need for an independent clearinghouse operator to facilitate number portability, and had even cobbled together a procurement approach and Request for Proposals. By mid 2014, they selected a preferred clearinghouse operator, all without acrimony and the usual bacchanal that surrounds procurement in Trinidad and Tobago. Then, after a string of successes – thing began to go awry.

On August 28, 2014, TATT issued a Determination on its website, still accessible here.

The Determination 2014/01 stated, among other things, that we should expect mobile number portability by February 2015 and fixed number portability by May 2015.   This despite at that time, the clearinghouse operator was not yet contracted to begin preparation for the launch of the service! You can’t make this up. 

Indeed, in the presentation of the representative of Columbus Communications at the March 3rd 2016 ICT Open Forum, heavy weather was made that Columbus was “ready to port since September 2014.”   One wonders how they might have done that when there was, as yet, no clearinghouse operator contracted.

Needless to say, the February and May 2015 deadlines passed by with ‘nary a word of explanation by TATT. Apparently, Determination 2014/01 was barely worth the bytes used to store it on the TATT website’s servers.   

Things continued to go pear-shaped as the TATT tried the trick again.  On November 19, 2015, TATT issued another Determination on its website, which is accessible here.

While going into a elaborate conversation about procurement exercises that it was undertaking, and suggesting that the first Determination (2014/01) was done without consultation with the operators, this Determination 2015/01 sought to repeat the same approach that TATT tried the previous year: establishing revised dates for the implementation of fixed and mobile number portability – March 31st 2016 and September 30th 2016. 

It did go a little further by stating in its clause 3 that the Determination would not be amended, rescind or repealed.   While this would suggest that the big guns were drawn, apparently, up to that time, the clearinghouse operator was still not yet contracted!   

This takes us to the events of February 16th, 2016 onwards. On February 16th, TATT alerted the media and world that the clearinghouse was finally engaged, and on that date, the clearinghouse had finally signed with the operators to facilitate number portability.  Then TATT began blitzing the traditional and new media with advisories about the rights of customers to number portability and how exactly number portability would work.   

These notices said things about customer requirement for eligibility to port, and process timelines. These notices spoke of customers’ responsibilities and sought to hint at a larger framework of customer protection. These notices piqued my interest, since if a State Agency is publishing FAQ’s about my rights, I’d like to know the regulations and statutes on which these FAQ’s depend…maybe that’s my pedantic nature.

What did I find?  The beginning of new chaos.  I found that no larger framework of customer protection existed.

I found that while Section 25 (2) (j) of the Telecommunications Act says…

“the Authority shall require concessionaires to provide, to the extent technically feasible, number portability when required to do so and in accordance with the requirements prescribed, by the Authority;”

and that while the Concession says in Condition A42…

“The concessionaire shall, in accordance with any regulations relating to number portability, facilitate the portability of numbers assigned to any customer of any operator of public telecommunications networks or provider of public telecommunications services.”

The only regulation in force today upon which TATT is undertaking this initiative is regulation 9 of the Telecommunications (Interconnection) Regulations, which states…

“A concessionaire shall configure its network to facilitate number portability between similar networks as and when directed by the Authority.”

This regulation covers the preparation of operator networks only. It provided no coverage, guidance or direction to consumer protection or customer rights and obligations. So while the operators were undertaking their regulatory obligation to meet TATT’s non-public requirements for their networks’ readiness, there was no regulatory requirement which outlined the rights and protections of customers. There is not even a regulatory outline of the vagaries of the porting process.

When I raised this query at the March 3rd ICT Open Forum, I got a cacophony of conflicting responses – all from one person!

I heard that number portability is an old technology, and that it is not hard to implement.  Yet TATT could not explain that while a mobile port in some African States takes as little as 15 minutes, that their FAQ’s speaks of customers waiting for THREE DAYS to port.

I heard that there was “a hope” that everything was all right. On this, I reflected about all the “all right” interactions I have with my current service providers.

I heard that TATT was willing to push the service unto the public with no protection, and then, they would seek to propose regulations to treat with problems that arose.  On this point, I reflected on the obvious speed in the existing regulation-making process, and that saying about catching the horse, after it had already bolted.

There were other questions, probably by people who used the Internet to see what others’ experiences were, a question about win-back tactics, for instance.   TATT responded that once a customer decided to port they could not change their mind. 

Notwithstanding my interest in the opinion of the Consumer Affairs Division of the Ministry of Legal Affairs, I would not hold it against anyone in the audience who was perplexed by an answer that was diametrically opposed to what at least one operator presented earlier.

In short, I heard the makings of chaos, of ad hoc behaviour, reflecting the storied wild west of American mythos.

This has me wondering. 

  • Should this number portability project be launched at the end of March 2016 without regulations that protect the consumer?
  • Wouldn’t it be more responsible for the regulator to take the steps necessary to protect the customer an the wider marketplace before the launch of this service?
  • Who would benefit from chaos, if it were to occur?
  • After 6 years, and untold money spent, don’t we Trinbagonians deserve better?
Kwesi Prescod
Kwesi Prescod

Kwesi Prescod is an ICT consultant with over 18 years experience in the sector, with stints in the commercial arena in the Caribbean, North America and Europe, as well as being involved in ICT Governance and Telecoms Regulation for over 13 years, including two years spent with TATT.