back to article UK mobile number porting creaks: Arcane system shows its age

Problems with the way the UK has implemented mobile phone call routing are emerging as an architecture designed for a small volume of calls struggles under the weight of usage. When you call a mobile and get a "number unavailable response" – without the call going to voicemail – it may be a much more deep-rooted problem than …

  1. Dan 55 Silver badge

    There's the chance that a call from EE to EE would fail because one of them was previously Vodafone (possibly?).

    If Syniverse are part of the problem, why would they be part of the solution? Operators should all part-own a central number authority which would route calls directly to the operator they're supposed to go to.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      If Syniverse are part of the problem, why would they be part of the solution?

      From the article: "While Syniverse holds the database of which number has been moved to which network, that’s not used for call routing."

      So Syniverse are part of the problem because their DB is not being used! As Syniverse currently maintain a DB, it is obvious that the fasted way to solve the problem is to use this DB (or rather the data within the DB) for call routing.

      Operators should all part-own a central number authority which would route calls directly to the operator they're supposed to go to.

      Whilst I agree the operators should all part-own a central number authority and this is something Ofcom could make happen and include within it's regulatory remit. I think there is no real reason for the central number authority to be directly involved in call routing. Instead it should act as a clearing house to ensure that for example the operator with responsibility for the 07973 block has up todate (ie. within 5~10 minutes) information on where calls to a specific number within that block should be redirected.

  2. wolfetone Silver badge

    "To give Three some credit, once we’d found someone senior enough..."

    I've just heard that they've seen their first snow in hell and that pork farms across the country are losing their pigs as they get up to fly.

    HOW did you manage that?! Every time I tried to do that when disputing my bill the chap in the Indian call centre just kept saying no.

    1. Loud Speaker

      I don't believe you. Indian call centres do not allow the use of negative words like "No".

      If the correct answer to your question is negative, you have to re-phrase the question so that the answer is positive. This is to "avoid creating offence".

      It is a failed strategy: I for one are seriously offended by the implication that I can't handle the truth.

      I can only assume that either

      a) negative words are politically incorrect in some culture I know nothing of (there are quite a lot of those)

      or

      b) This is an extrapolation from the sales technique where the object of the game is to keep asking questions to which the answer is "yes", and when they are deeply stuck in the groove, suddenly ask "do you want 20,000 tons of pork bellies at $900 a pop?" hoping you have lulled them into answering "yes" to anything you ask.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        "negative words are politically incorrect in some culture I know nothing of"

        You'd better believe it.

        In Japanese the word for yes is "Hai."

        I've never heard the word for no, because it's almost never used.

        1. gurugeorge

          Re: "negative words are politically incorrect in some culture I know nothing of"

          Re:

          In Japanese the word for yes is "Hai." I've never heard the word for no, because it's almost never used.

          Is that why they have such messed up porn? "Mitsu, not sure if it's a big ask as it's our first date, but can I put 4 live eels up your arse before I double punch fist it to the point of prolapse while 50 of my mates jizz relentlessly into your nostrils and eyeballs?"

          1. wolfetone Silver badge
            Coat

            Re: "negative words are politically incorrect in some culture I know nothing of"

            "Is that why they have such messed up porn? "Mitsu, not sure if it's a big ask as it's our first date, but can I put 4 live eels up your arse before I double punch fist it to the point of prolapse while 50 of my mates jizz relentlessly into your nostrils and eyeballs?""

            Not going to lie, my enjoyment of Japanese porn is prevented when I'm not 100% sure whether the woman is enjoying it, let alone consented to it.

            And the pixels don't help either.

  3. Mage Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Porting in Ireland

    Seems to work in minutes. By the time you leave shop with new SIM in old phone. Most shops will also for free copy the SIM based contacts in a SIM data copier too, for free.

    Three is rubbish to deal with. Everything from customer support to running/maintaining infrastructure is outsourced. Their advertising is misleading. Yet Comreg only considered "Competition" not competence and approved the takeover of O2 Ireland by Three.

    1. joewilliamsebs

      Re: Porting in Ireland

      Who the heck stores contacts on the SIM?

      1. lybad

        Re: Porting in Ireland

        People who still use old phones? Not every phone has access to the numbers stored in iCloud or Google.

      2. boltar Silver badge

        Re: Porting in Ireland

        >Who the heck stores contacts on the SIM?

        When you're out of short trousers sonny we'll let you know about the wonderful world of not having to rely on the cloud and flaky internet connections but still being able to move all your contacts to a new phone in an instant. You know, a bit like local email storage instead of gmail ... oh never mind, you're probably confused already.

    2. Sbthq

      Re: Porting in Ireland

      In the UK we use the MNP system for porting, currently 24 hours. In Ireland they use a different system (max 2 hours) which is why the porting over there is so quick. Three use this other system in Ireland already and have been trying to get it over here but all the other networks need to agree and buy in to the technology (which Three already have).

  4. The Bit Wrangler

    Why oh why etc.

    Surely it's time for the UK to have a Mobile "Transco/Network Rail" that owns all the infrastructure and data and the "carriers" could just be billing agents? As well as sorting this load of old b*ll*cks it'd mean that we'd have consistent carriage over networks and could plan future enhancements in a meaningful way.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why oh why etc.

      Surely it's time for the UK to have a Mobile "Transco/Network Rail" that owns all the infrastructure and data and the "carriers" could just be billing agents?

      Errm, no.

      Do you really think the energy or rail markets are a model for mobile phones to follow? And if the carriers were reduced to mere billing agents with minimal ownership of the cost build, and no operational control or influence over assets, why bother having that pretend level of competition on the final 10% of the value chain? I work for an energy supplier, and I can assure you that the idea of splitting up the value chain in utilities has had a few modest benefits, but nowhere near enough to justify the idea.

      The other flaw in your suggestion is to believe that a single network operator who took over the hugely overlapping assets of the existing MNOs would do a good job. In the electricity and gas markets this hasn't been a ringing success (and you should note that Transco has long been broken up into separate networks owned and operated by four different companies). Anyway, heard of Openreach? Suitably monopolistic, but not exactly a paragon of customer service and providing a great broadband service, is it?

      Even if a single asset provider merged the assets, they'd set to to reduce the duplication, and they'd be most unlikely to build out the network where there's no coverage. Serving mobile signals to sheep will continue to have a zero profit potential, so it won't happen unless a board director happens to be inconvenienced.

    2. 2+2=5 Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Why oh why etc.

      Surely it's time for the UK to have a Mobile "Transco/Network Rail" that owns all the infrastructure and data and the "carriers" could just be billing agents? As well as sorting this load of old b*ll*cks it'd mean that we'd have consistent carriage over networks and could plan future enhancements in a meaningful way.

      Yes, a good idea. It would help if this new organisation covered fixed-line porting as well, so we shouldn't use the word 'mobile' in their name. Perhaps it should be named something like the General Call Handling and Querying company or GCHQ for short?

    3. Dale 3

      Re: Why oh why etc.

      No, terrible idea. If you have poor network coverage in your home/office/commute/etc, you can't switch to another network with better coverage. The monopolistic network provider is in no hurry to improve coverage because their customers are billing agents, not end users, and they're not losing any customers over this.

  5. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Ah the good old days of POTS...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      POTS

      Yes, looks like "Fuss Free Phones" (who deserve credit for not playing silly buggers with F & Ph) have gone back to the 1940s model to get something that works. That should tell us something...

      1. Simon Rockman

        Re: POTS

        Someone did once suggest that Fuss Free Fones could be 3F, rather than 3G. I didn't like the idea.

  6. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Makes me wonder..

    I have problems sending texts to my wife's phone, number ported from Virgin to I think EE, now with Three. My own phone's number went from VM via Tesco/O2 now also with 3. I can receive and respond to texts she sends me. Maybe that's something to do with their routing database too. It's impossible to get any kind of sense from the network(s).

    1. wolfetone Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Makes me wonder..

      Or you text her when she's with the milkman and she doesn't want to be disturbed?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Swiss Anton

        Re: Makes me wonder..

        "... the milkman ..."

        Its 2017, its a milk delivery operative nowadays. BTW, does this job still exist?

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Makes me wonder..

          BTW, does this job still exist?

          We still have a milkman (we're near Caerphilly). Admittedly his 'round' is geographically much larger than in the 1970s, and his number of clients is smaller and he drives a Toyota pickup rather than a battery-powered three-wheeler, but he still exists.

          Wouldn't be without him.

          Gets his milk from this place, would you believe it.

          M.

      3. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Makes me wonder..

        Funny, but poor understanding of texts. (People don't have to read them at the time they get them). And in my case it's more a matter of "Why didn't you send me the text you promised?" I did" "You didn't" "I did" "you didn't"...etc etc

    2. Simon Rockman

      Re: Makes me wonder..

      No, text messaging uses an *entirely* separate database and routing system called IR21 (cf. SS7 vulnerabilities and various Snowden documents).

      Because of the way SMS was just a good idea at the time (https://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/07/08/the_real_history_of_sms/) it was set up with an infrastructure that is even more archaic and strange.

      That number and text ports happen at the same time is pretty miraculous.

    3. Blotto Bronze badge

      Re: Makes me wonder..

      Use whatsapp.

      I barely send any SMS's now, mainly iMessage and whatsapp.

      I had a similar issue a longtime ago with c&w not able to phone to orange. A chat with their senior techs revealed they didn't have the prefix in their call routing system, while it took minutes to fix, it took a lot longer to get someone knowledgeable to look into it.

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge

        Re: Makes me wonder..

        All my communication in the hands of Facebook, no thanks.

        1. fedoraman

          Re: Makes me wonder..

          Oh the irony!

          Yes, all your communication is in the hands of Facebook, but perhaps not it the way that you think.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Our company mobile phones were originally on Orange, then ported to Vodafone and are now on EE. Whenever I call EE they try to tell me it's an Orange number and redirect me to a different CS number (likewise, their automated system tries to direct me to Orange CS). I suspect this ungainly system is the reason.

  8. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge
    Holmes

    Moving numbers to different carrier?

    Wow! that is new {sic}

    Joking apart, I can remember that Vodafone refused to let me move a number away to Orange saying that I didn't own the number. As I was the bill payer it was a 'does not compute' moment.

    Glad that the wet string for doing this is still working (just)

  9. Roland6 Silver badge

    Arcane system or just too many ports?

    It would be interesting to plot both the number and cumulative number of ports per annum. As I'm interested in whether the total number of ported numbers is increasing either as a percentage of all numbers or just in simple numerical terms and whether this volume of ported numbers is in itself is causing problems.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Arcane system or just too many ports?

      It would be interesting to plot both the number and cumulative number of ports per annum. As I'm interested in whether the total number of ported numbers is increasing either as a percentage of all numbers or just in simple numerical terms and whether this volume of ported numbers is in itself is causing problems.

      I was wondering if maybe the porting database needs to to know the full porting history to track the number and "no one will ever need more than 640KB 5 porting operations" so the database is running into problems with field overflow or buffer overruns ;-)

  10. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    We sometimes get this on our work contract. We're large enough to have a half-decent team who can track this sort of stuff down quite quickly.

  11. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    It’s not what happens in other countries.

    So what does happen elsewhere? Have many other countries gone through so many acquisitions & mergers? Enquiring minds & all that.

  12. Pan Handle Door Handle With Care

    SMS Black Hole

    We have a particular number ported to Three from T-Mobile/EE and have endless problems with SMS messages to it from EE users randomly not being delivered. Seems to happen especially with long (ie. concatenated) text messages. Sometimes "number unavailable" with calls from EE too (when it has full signal,) but that more rarely.

    Numerous complaints to Three have gone nowhere (although their staff are generally pretty helpful in their attitude at least) and it is essentially impossible to troubleshoot the issue without a deep technical knowledge of how the mobile networks actually work - which I don't have, and the Three staff you can actually speak to don't either - because there are just so many variables.

    Time and location for a start. Problem with the most frequently nearest local mast (which is an EE colocation)? Could be, but there have been problems elsewhere too (so were they colocations too, perhaps?) Is it relevant that the SMS originator is an iPhone on EE? (Three have twice said that they have broad problems with that combination, but without further explanation or any indication of a fix. And in any case, messages have been black-holed from at least one EE Android user.) Is the receiving handset the problem (another thing they like to blame without logical or evidential basis)? Is it an issue with 4G? (Been asked to switch to 3G-only on a few occasions thus far, but there doesn't seem to be any consistent link.)

    All very tiresome. Text messages not being delivered can cause real problems. And without the knowledge, we're completely in the dark - can't even try to insist they look into something in particular.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: SMS Black Hole

      "Text messages not being delivered can cause real problems"

      A bit off topic, but I recommend people to never assume a text message has been delivered until they receive a reply.

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: SMS Black Hole

        never assume a text message has been delivered until they receive a reply

        Does "*0# " before your message still work these days? (remember to put a space between the # and your message) It used to send a message back to you to confirm that your message had been delivered to the recipient's phone, though of course not that they had read it.

        I used it a few times in the early days of SMS when it was an important message. It was free then, IIRC, but I stopped using it when some networks started charging for the reply. I've no idea of the current situation.

        M.

    2. Warm Braw Silver badge

      Re: SMS Black Hole

      A long time ago, I had problems with texts from a number that had been ported to T-mobile: I could get texts from most networks, but not the BT network (which, at the time, would send a text if someone left me a message). T-mobile were entirely unhelpful and BT were officially very unhelpful, but I managed to get put through to a network engineer by a combination of accident and persistence: he immediately said it was a known problem, that the SMS interconnects between networks were incredibly fragile and that since texts weren't a regulated service there was no likelihood of it being fixed. I doubt much has changed.

    3. Snorlax
      Facepalm

      Re: SMS Black Hole

      @Pan Handle Door Handle With Care:"All very tiresome. Text messages not being delivered can cause real problems. And without the knowledge, we're completely in the dark:

      SMS was never intended to be a guaranteed method of communication.

      It gets on my tits when someone, usually at work, says "Didn't you get my text about the xyz?" Usually used as an excuse to palm off responsibility to someone else...

      If you need to communicate something important, get over your social anxiety and SPEAK to the other person to ensure they understand what you're on about.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: SMS Black Hole

        Boll**ks. It's usually b***er all to do with "social anxiety". Sometimes you need to send a brief written message to someone (especially when the person isn't even there with you).. Often a reminder, or an address. Maybe something to collect from the shops on the way home, or a client's request. SMS is usually the only sensible way to do this. It doesn't have to interrupt, it doesn't need immediate attention, it doesn't need to be scribbled down by a recipient who is hearing it while trying to rush off somewhere. And it's there, in writing, when it's needed.

  13. jason 7

    Have they sorted 07777 numbers yet?

    Or will I be stuck on the Vodafone network forever?

    Apparently the 07777 numbers are just listed in a folder in someone's office.

    1. Simon Rockman

      Re: Have they sorted 07777 numbers yet?

      BT owns 0777

  14. kain preacher Silver badge

    I know that this might not be perfect but in the US we doing multi ported number differently. If I port a a number from att to T-mobile. ATT and T mobile work it out. IfI then port the number to sprint it goes back to ATT. Then ATT and sprint work it out. The number will always be ATT. If for some reason I stop paying my sprint bill and do not port the number out, the number will go back to ATT.

    1. Disgruntled of TW
      Thumb Up

      Chainging ports ..

      ... your approach in the US is much better than EU porting, which used to be chaining ports. So, if you had a Cellnet number and ported to Voda, then to T-Mobile, when someone called you, they would hunt you down via Cellnet, then Voda, then get to T-mobile.

      This made noticeable delays in connecting calls after a few ports. I don't know how it is done today, but I hope the number of ports isn't relevant, as the market needs to retain freedom!

      Vodafone have TWICE banned my IMEI of my phone because "I" reported my phone stolen, apparently. I asked them for the CEOs mobile number as I believed it had been stolen. I think the point was missed on them. I am no longer with Voda.

  15. deive

    I had to give up a fairly nice number that I'd had for years cos I thought that was the problem... new number doesn't seem much better tbh. Stop talking about 5G and just get this shite working please!

  16. cosymart
    FAIL

    Way Forward

    It seems to me that the simple option is not to port your mobile number in the UK until this fudging mess is sorted. What a dogs breakfast :-( Where's OFCOM when you need them?

  17. Christian Berger Silver badge

    To put that into perspective

    The German fixed line portability scheme involves exchanging porting information between carriers (there are companies which act as intermediates for carriers which only have limited interconnections). Those are stored in databases (or plain text files) and converted to special database files which can be looked up in less than a millisecond. So for every outgoing call a carrier will look up which carrier hosts the number and look up what is the best (read cheapest) way to reach that destination.

    When someone ports their number away from one carrier, they are obliged to forward the calls to the new carrier for free for a certain time. That's why carriers charge up to 20 Euros per outgoing number.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: To put that into perspective

      At some level of triviality, isn't a very similar process used for the UK "Number Translation Service" (at least for landline calls from a well known carrier with the initials T and B).

      Landline end user calls 08/03/whatever non-geographic number. Originating telco passes called number to (their? a?) NTS which does quasi-instant lookup of real destination and onward routing. Telco forwards call on to relevant destination, which might or might not be the same one as it was yesterday. Proper job.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You can blame Vodafone for this mess.

    Or Ofcom, take your pick.

    But as the last time Ofcom tried to clean it up, Vodafone got the courts to strike the (eminently sensible) idea down, I pretty much guarantee Ofcom won't try again.

    http://www.catribunal.org.uk/files/Judgment_1094_180908.pdf

  19. Amorous Cowherder
    Happy

    Not for every one I know, but dump your old number

    I happily dump my number every 2-3 years and get a new one off whichever network is supplying me at that time. I know it's definitely not for everyone but it's a great way to get rid of people you dislike and only keep those numbers you wish to keep up with!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not for every one I know, but dump your old number

      I do this too, and have recently been getting calls for you on my new phone. What's your current number so I can pass it on?

  20. Walter Bishop Silver badge

    Interesting choice of illustration

    'Dishonest attractive African American woman reading messages on mobile phone having happy carefree look while her suspicious jealous husband sitting next to her and spying. Infidelity and jealousy' link

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just..

    ..to be an arse :-)

    07973 wasn't issued in 1995. That'll have been 0973. The additional seven came a while after that.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I worked in the industry at the time the porting plan was being developed.

    The Wholesale (markets?) part of BT offered a solution where they would hold every number in a database and it would be queried for every call using C7, with the response message from the DB being used by the originating network to then put the call on the appropriate interconnect.

    It was rejected by the industry in favour of the current mechanism which was given the name tromboning. The same method is used for fixed line number portability as well - send the call to where it originally would have gone and then route via the history of number ports. It's not terribly efficient and is exactly what the BT folk were predicting would happen back in the early 90's.

  23. Peter X

    You managed to speak to "the wise one"?!!

    To give Three some credit, once we’d found someone senior enough she was genuinely interested in the problem, took ownership and got it sorted

    The only way I can think you could speak to someone who actually knows stuff is... SHIBBOLEET! Am I right?

    Also, is this a problem that could be solved by DNS?

  24. russthegibbon

    I had exactly this problem when I was with Vodafone back in 2011-2013. I've had the same number since 2000 and it's been ported pretty much everywher. In the Vodafone period, callers kept getting "number not in service" and no amount of support calls resolved it. In the end I had to change networks and I've never had the problem since.

    This is the kind of problem you will always get in large, complex, multi-company legacy systems. The real shame is that Vodafone's support people, whilst always friendly and apologetic, didn't seem to have the knowledge to sort it when it occurs.

  25. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
    FAIL

    "got it sorted, but no normal mobile user is going to have the perseverance to work through the issues or"

    Bzzzzt

    My mother had this problem and with enough calls and evidence (I had to attempt phoning her 3 times in an evening noting the exact time, for example), it got sorted out. Pretty quickly actually. I think she called the network 3 or 4 times and it was fully resolved in 2 days.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    For the record

    The article’s description of how MNP operates is nonsense. Your number is anchored in the network that originally gave you the number and is involved in all Terminating SMS and Voice calls. If you port your number out to another network (B), then network B will usually avoid terminating traffic going through the original (donor) network as it knows it currently hosts your number.

    Problems can occur when networks get out of sync - e.g porting from network B to C involves updates in all 3 networks. If one of them fails to update correctly, you will fail to receive calls/texts from that network.

    Yes, There are problems with the way it is currently done. Just want to set the article straight.

    For the UK market, the likes of Syniverse are used to allow low cost operators to pass a call directly to the final destination network to achieve the lowest cost. They have no involvement in day to day call routing within the UK.

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