The numbers allocated for mobile phone operators in Latvia may run out by next spring, according to Inna Steinbuka, chairman of the Public Utilities Regulatory Board, which is currently charged with distributing numbering resource.
Steinbuka and Gundega Rutka, an expert with the regulator, say that in the next two weeks, the last 200 000 available numbers will be allocated – 100 000 apiece – to Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) and Tele2. Rutka estimates that at present rates of consumption – LMT recently reported a monthly increase of around 30 000 customers – the numbers should be fully used up in March or April. That effectively means that both operators will have to stop ordering new SIM cards, as there will be no authorized numbers left to use with them.
The regulator advocates a rapid switch to eight-digit numbering, something which the agency has been reminding the government (more precisely, the Ministry of Transport's Communications Department) of since the summer. In fact, Steinbuka and Rutka suggest that it may already be too late to do this in an orderly fashion.
Another unexpected side effect of the number shortage is that any new so-called third operator will have no resources whatsoever. In fact, announcing an auction for the third GSM/UMTS licence will, in effect, be a misrepresentation, since whoever buys it will have no number resources whatsoever.
There may, however, be more to this whole oncoming mess than meets the eye. For one thing, the regulator under the final draft of Latvia's new Law on Electronic Communications will lose the power to allocate numbers. Steinbuka's attitude is "good riddance" as the regulator has enough to do already.
But at the Communications Department, sources told this blogger that the alarmist statements from the regulator are seen as part of a bureaucratic battle – the regulator doesn't want to lose some of its authority to the Ministry of Transport. Whatever the case may be, Steinbuka describes the handling of the numbering issue as "a football" that has been kicked between the regulator and the Communications Department for several months with no useful result.
Raimonds Bergmanis, the director of the Communications Department says that a government decree is being drafted concerning the adopting of eight-digit numbering. It will be adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers and issued in the next few weeks. He personally is skeptical about any imminent crisis for the mobile operators and says that for the immediate future, it would suffice to better manage existing resource by finally charging for their use or reservation.
Bergmanis points to a database on the regulator's website www.sprk.gov.lv, (follow the links in Latvian) that he says adds up to around a million numbers set aside for each existing operator (I have not played around with them in their downloadable Excel format). That means that even if each of the operators has around 700 000 users (LMT says it does, Tele2 doesn't report these figures), there are still around 600 000 mobile numbers left. Also, says Bergmanis, if all of these numbers were, indeed, to be allocated, it would mean that every living inhabitant, including infants and subsistence-level pensioners, could get a mobile phone.
A list of number resouce allocations since fall, 2002 shows that 770 000 numbers have or soon will be allocated, covering, roughly, the time the regulator has been in existence. The figures don't show how many numbers were already apportioned to both operators at the time.
Yet another interesting issue is how many numbers are actually in some kind of churn-lag, for lack of a better term. These would mainly be Tele2 prepaid cards whose lifetime (six months for some) has not expired, but which are effectively not being used (they were bought by short term visitors and then discarded). Only once these numbers are "legally dead" can they be reissued. The same problem faces Amigo, the virtual operator as well as LMT's O-Card program.
In a statement showing, to my mind, the underlying tensions between the Communications Department and the regulator, Bergmanis said that it was possible the existing operators had effectively staged a kind of number resource "land grab" so that there would be nothing left for the third GSM/UMTS operator. With number portability, anyone switching to "Newbie3GCom" (my hypothetical name) would face a stiff fee, which the incumbent operators, theoretically, could charge. By pointing this out, the Communications Department director is effectively saying that the regulator allowed the "land grab" and may have been profligate in meeting the operators' demands for more and more numbers.
Meanwhile the regulator is documenting that it was, in fact, conservative if not miserly with the numbers by pointing out that it took several tries for each operator to get a new allocation and by showing this blogger correspondence with LMT telling the operator to use up what it already has in stock before coming to them for more.
So what we have is a multifaceted process going on, with bureaucrats fighting for turf or to say (as the regulator may well want to), "I told you so", with the operators sharing the belief that they are heading at high speed for the end of their number allocation rope, and with not a few people in the business asking – will there be SIM cards available around Easter?