Phone Number Stability And The Neustar-Telcordia Fight, Why The NANC Meeting Makes Me Nervous.

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I confess I have become something of a nervous Nellie about telephone numbers.

 

Boring, humdrum, 10-digit numbers that sit at the base of the telephone system. Most of us never think about how they work. But we rely on them for a Hell of a lot. Contrary to popular belief, what defines the “public switched network” (PSTN) is not a particular technology or means of transmission, but the use of phone numbers in the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) (47 C.F.R. 20.3).

 

Which is why I worry about the upcoming meeting of the North American Numbering Council (NANC) on Thursday. Folks expect that the NANC will address the the current fight between Neustar and Telcordia (now owned by Erickson) to become (or remain) the Local Number Portability Administrator (LNPA) when the current contract with Neustar runs out in 2015. While no one without a financial stake in the outcome (outside a handful of wonks obsessed with phone numbers) has followed this much, the possibility that we may create a destabilizing tug of war around the maintenance of phone numbers during the IP Transition gives me serious tummy queasies when I think about it.

 

At the same time, I recognize that any delay ends up favoring the current incumbent LNPA (Neustar) and that as a pro-competition guy I would like to see Telcordia give Neustar a run for the money and not get subjected to endless delays.

 

But . . . . tummy queasies! Possible meltdown of the phone system and stuff.

 

Details below . . .

 

Let me start by saying I’m not weighing in on the merits of the Neustar/Telcordia fight. I generally like the idea of forcing government contractors to rebid their contracts. I don’t really know enough about the background here to get into the question of who did what and which company offers a better deal, or should be allowed to offer a better deal.

 

My problems with this process go more to the overall stability of the numbering system. So far, I do not see a lot of official recognition out of either NANC (which is going to weigh in on the rebid) or the FCC on the things that worry me. Which makes me worried.

 

Background To Make This Comprehensible.

 

Once upon a time, we used to give phone numbers only to a telephone companies, and the numbers stayed allocated to these companies. Then we decided to introduce competition into the phone system. To make this happen, Congress decreed in the 1996 Act that we would make telephone numbers “portable.” If you decide to switch from your local telephone company to your local cable company voice service, you can take your telephone number with you.

 

Why? Because as trivial as it may seem, people don’t like switching phone numbers. You have to contact every single person or business you want to stay in contact with and tell them the new phone number. There is always some form somewhere you forgot to fill out, resulting in a missed payment or delayed notice or transaction not getting through or whatever. It’s a hassle. And that hassle (technically called a “switching cost”) is a sufficient mental block (or at least it used to be) to prevent a lot of people from switching phone services. So to encourage competition, Congress decreed that numbers are “portable.”

 

How to achieve this significant change in network engineering, Congress wisely left to the FCC. Other than the obligation to designate “one or more impartial entities” to hand out phone numbers (47 U.S.C. 251(e) for folks playing at home), Congress pretty much left it to the FCC to handle the details.

 

The FCC opted to handle this by creating a pseudo-contracting process. I say “pseudo” because it doesn’t really fall into the contracting services category since the FCC has ultimate responsibility to make it happen and therefore kept review as an “intrinsicly governmental” function. But it basically put out specifications for bid and a company called Neustar got the contract. To keep Neustar from getting too fat and lazy, the FCC decided to rebid the contract on a regular basis.

 

For about 15 or so years, Neustar has done a pretty good job keeping the “local number portability” (LNP) database running as the phone universe has grown more complex. It has also made great big heapin’ piles o’ money in the process.  Needless to say, other companies think they can do a good job on this as well, and claim they can do so for somewhat smaller but still pretty good sized heapin’ piles o’ money. So when the time came to rebid the contract, Neustar faced competition from several firms, most notably Telcordia.

 

What happened next is a rather lengthy and tortuous process that began back in 2010. You can find details of the back and forth accusations between Neustar and Telcordia and whether the FCC should or should not reopen the selection process in this Washington Post piece. From my perspective, however, only the following things are really relevant.

1. Over the years, Neustar got several rounds of contract extension through opaque processes by the NANC that Telcordia says were blatantly unfair, resulting in Neustar having the contract until June 2015.

 

2. The current process for rebidding the contract has been dragging on endlessly since 2010, before we began to get serious about the IP Transition. On the plus side, however, the actual request for proposals went out in May 2013, when we at least knew we were gonna do something on IP Transition but without knowing much else.

 

3. I have now showed up on the scene and have no real good way of knowing how this process works in conjunction with the IP Transition.

 

4. One thing I do know is that the current contract runs out June 30, 2015 – or about when (if we keep to schedule) AT&T should be starting its first round of 214(a) requests to phase out traditional TDM-based phone systems entirely, resulting in geographic areas that are all IP-based.

5. Another thing I know is that the RFP cannot take into account the outcome of the IP Transition phone numbering testbed, since we only just authorized that at the end of January and we just had the first workshop two weeks ago.

6. This all makes me very nervous.

 

Why Does This Make Me Nervous?

 

To be clear, I really don’t have a good sense of who is right or wrong as between Telcordia and Neustar. As someone usually squaring off against the incumbent, I’m very sympathetic to Telcordia for a bunch of reasons. If you’re Telcordia, then for years you got messed up by the opaque process of selection and now when it is finally starting to actually work for you, Neustar is using it’s evil incumbent wiles to bring up all kinds of concerns about process that it never gave a hoot about when it was getting all that contract extension gravy – including influencing well-meaning but ignorant and easily scared public interest advocates such as yr hmbl ob’dnt blogger.

 

On the flip side, as an actual user of the phone system, I find myself really attracted to stability in the phone number system. And this is where I get nervous.

 

In the last year or so, I’ve testified and written a lot about how one aspect of the IP Transition that gets overlooked is phone numbers and phone number security. Happily, the FCC has agreed that we need to figure this out, and as part of the IP Transition Order the FCC has ordered a Phone Numbering Testbed to address these things.

 

Meanwhile, while we are still figuring out what the actual future requirements for the phone numbering system are, we are potentially ordering that we switch Local Phone Number Administrators (LNPAs) based on what we thought they might be in 2013 before we began collecting any data. Further, just as we start to get going on what is likely to be a very challenging process, we may be switching LNPAs.

 

And this is why I get nervous. I’d love to believe Neustar is so civic minded and cares so much about the future of the numbering system that they will totally upgrade their systems and procedures to accommodate the changed demands of the numbering system even if they know they have lost the contract and will then seamlessly hand off the new system to whoever is selected as the replacement. But I don’t. I like the Neustar folks just fine (we go back to my old ICANN days and I know a bunch of folks over there), but I don’t pretend they are somehow more virtuous than the next profit maximizing firm. If they lose the bid they will drag their heels, protest, not do any new work they are not by contract required to do, and demand to be paid outrageous sums for their proprietary databases and software — which Telcordia will protest.

 

In fairness to Neutsar, they won’t really have a choice about it. This contract is half the net value of their company. And it’s not generally a good idea to let the prospect of a company throwing a tantrum to guide policy. But while a potentially company tantrum shouldn’t dictate policy, the fact that it likely will happen requires advance planning.

 

So, to put all this together, we have a request for proposals that was extremely vague on what we would need to actually support the IP Transition, so we have no way to really measure whether the parties submitting the bids are really up to what the job will be. We have a potential transition, which is always a hassle at the best of times, just when we expect to be dong the tricky initial ramp up of the transition to all-IP.

 

Hence my nervousness. Nor am I alone in my nervousness. COMPTEL, which has a heck of a lot more access to the NANC than I do, suddenly woke up to this process and got all nervous, submitting this letter of nervousness.  No doubt Telcordia would say COMPTEL (whose members, as competing phone companies, depend on a smoothly functioning number portability system) are victims of Neustar FUD, like I am. Which is undoubtedly true, but irrelevant to the actual concerns raised that that current process (a) doesn’t provide adequate safeguards for the transition, and (b) doesn’t give concerned people like me enough input now that we have shown up at the last minute.

 

And again, I’m very sympathetic to the “what do you mean we need to stop everything to make you happy now that you showed up” argument. I run into this a lot (did I mention I used to do ICANN stuff) and I always hate it. But that doesn’t make me less nervous and it doesn’t change the fact that a lot has changed in the phone numbering world as a result of the IP Transition going from “something we are totally gonna do some day” to “something we are actually working on so the phone system doesn’t collapse.”

 

So What Would I Like To See?

 

NANC meets Thursday, March 27. The hot speculation is that they will consider the Neustar and Telcordia bids and make a recommendation up to the FCC.

 

I’m not sure what I’d like at this point, and I’m not sure NANC could give it to me if I knew. Because I think what I want is for the full Commission – which actually has jurisdiction over this stuff – to hold off until it does the numbering testbed and figures out what the actual requirements for the future Local Number Portability Administrator will be. I also want the FCC to make absolutely sure, now, that they have a process that will minimize the funny games Neustar can play if they lose the contract and need to transfer the functioning of the phone numbering system to someone else.

 

All of which probably means reopening the contract, which I get is essentially a win to Neustar in the short term. As a generally pro-competition and suspicious of incumbents kind of guy, this makes me unhappy. But as someone now obsessed with phone numbers who has visions of a “healthcare.gov”-type meltdown when the current contract expires in June 2015, I’m equally unhappy with proceeding under the old RFP and hoping things just work themselves out.

 

 

Do We Really Need A Monopoly Administrator?

 

Finally, one way out of this mess might be to get rid of the idea of a single administrator entirely. After all, there is nothing in the Communications Act that requires a single administrator. Section 251(e) requires the FCC to “create or designate one or more impartial entities to administer telecommunications numbering and to make such numbers available on an equitable basis.”

 

So why not authorize multiple Local Number Portability Administrators (LNPAs)? Increasingly, as coordination between databases becomes both easier and more common, we’ve moved away from the idea that we need a single authoritative database for stability and we can have multiple database administrators. We’ve done this with the TV white spaces database, for example, where the FCC has authorized multiple administrators and required them to work with each other. Such a solution might now be possible, or possible in the near term, for local number portability.

 

If the FCC decides to rethink this process in light of the changing demands on the phone system and the unfortunate timing of when the contract expires, it ought to also consider the possibility that we could open this to competition in a less disruptive way by authorizing multiple LNPAs.

 

But in the meantime, I hope the NANC is aware that this isn’t the usual contracting situation. That for the first time since the 1996 formalized the concept of local number portability and sought to introduce massive competition into what had been the local phone monopolies, the very structure of the phone system is in flux. Whatever NANC decides at the March Meeting this week, it needs to reflect these concerns.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

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