Local number portability is the Congressional mandate that lets you keep your phone number when you switch to a new telephone or wireless service provider.  Since the advent of LNP in 1997 the FCC-appointed administrator of the national LNP database that processes number porting requests has been Neustar, Inc.  However, the FCC just awarded the database responsibility to a new administrator: Telcordia Technologies, a subsidiary of Ericsson AB.

How will the transition from Neustar to Telcordia impact law enforcement monitoring of criminal suspects who use communications networks?  A smooth transition would mean no disruption for law enforcement investigations or communication service providers.  But a rocky hand-off may burden both sides of the law enforcement assistance process.

Law Enforcement Relies on the LNP Database to Conduct Criminal Investigations

Let’s say a criminal suspect uses his wireless phone to call suspected members of an auto theft ring.  Before law enforcement agents can obtain the legal authority needed to investigate the suspect’s calling activity – either by collecting his past phone records or listening to his phone conversations in real time – they must identify his wireless service provider.

Agents can readily find the suspect’s service provider by plugging his ten-digit phone number into a Neustar interactive voice response system or subscribing to an online version of the service called LEAP.  Neustar knows the service provider ID, or “SPID,” for every number in the North American numbering system because it tracks that information for LNP purposes.

Setbacks in the Planned LNP Transition May Hinder Criminal Investigations

Now let’s say the transition from Neustar to Telcordia causes delays or inaccuracies in the updates of the LNP database SPID fields.  Our nation has never changed its LNP administrator before.  These two administrators in particular are competitors with hostile relations.  And managing the LNP database is a highly complex business.

SPID errors or omissions may occur even in the best of times.  For example, a service provider may take assignment of a block of phone numbers and then reassign a portion of the block to a reseller without notifying the LNP administrator.

A SPID error would not cause law enforcement to monitor the wrong suspect.  If agents approach a carrier with a due process request for a certain phone number, and the carrier does not serve that number, it may simply inform the agents of the mistake.

The more worrisome problem is that agents may have trouble finding the suspect’s carrier.  In that event they may have to serve their due process request on numerous service providers at once with the hope that one of them will claim ownership of the suspect’s number.

Law enforcement agencies dislike using the shotgun approach to due process because it can take days or even weeks to hear back from the right carrier.  Even a brief delay in the evidence-gathering process could frustrate an investigation.  Our hypothetical car thief could replace (or “drop”) his phone, employ other modes of communication, complete an auto theft spree that otherwise would have been stopped, switch to other criminal activities, or leave the jurisdiction.

Meanwhile carriers resent the distraction and inefficiency of doing number “look-ups” that turn out to be false alarms.  Industry has already become subject to an ever-growing volume of law enforcement requests.  They hardly need an increase in the non-revenue producing obligation.

Neither Service Providers nor Law Enforcement Can Control How the Transition Unfolds

Neustar has hinted it may sue the FCC to reverse its LNP decision.  Such a novel proceeding could postpone the LNP transition by a year or more.  Even without legal delays it could take a year or two for Telcordia to undergo the LNP government contracting process and complete the planned hand-off from Neustar.

During these potentially long timeframes Neustar may lay off or otherwise lose many key employees in its LNP division.  It may reduce spending on LNP database maintenance.  Or it might simply focus more resources on its other lines of business.

Meanwhile Telcordia will need to ramp up significantly to handle the LNP tasks.  These contingencies may not necessarily erode the accuracy of the LNP SPID fields.  But it is a risk.

To the extent the LNP transition slows down or muddies the number porting process, number-losing carriers would lose customers more slowly and number-gaining carriers would gain them more slowly.  Criminals, like all other consumers, would encounter porting delays. Law enforcement would probably wait longer to find the carriers needed to assist investigations, as explained above.  And carriers would likely experience greater volumes of law enforcement requests, as also noted.

Service providers have little power to manage the potential LNP risks.  A carrier cannot control the speed or quality of the LNP transition.  It certainly cannot predict when the police will knock on the door. Likewise the cops cannot affect the transition.

The best all parties can do is roll with the bureaucratic punches.