Switching networks

Mobile number portability is already in place in a handful of countries in the Middle East and Africa, with more in the region expected to launch the service next year. CommsMEA looks at some of the lessons learnt around the world, and the challenges facing operators who are about to confront MNP.

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By  Administrator Published  January 24, 2009

Recipient led systems are generally thought of as the most effective. Noelle Jones explains why: "Donors have little incentive to fast-track the porting process, and a longer porting time gives greater opportunity to offer inducements for the customer to stay with the donor operator. From a customer viewpoint, dealing with just the recipient operator is far preferable than having to contact both donor and recipient in order to arrange the port."

A delay to the process of switching networks is another potential problem area that can stifle consumer interest. Whereas in South Africa it takes one day to swap networks, in Oman, users have to wait for three days. And in Saudi Arabia the time period is five days. This can be compared with Australia where porting can be achieved in only three hours. In Australia, 6.1% of mobile subscribers ported in 2007, compared to 0.5% in Oman.

Australia is considered by many to be one of the best examples of a successful implementation of MNP, with an average of 85,000 ports per month, according to figures from the industry body that administers MNP in the country.

Noelle Jones, of Australian analyst firm Network Strategies Limited, attributes it to a "transparent and seamless" system.

"What this means is that the customer enters a shop, signs up with the new provider and in most cases walks out a few minutes later with an operational service that uses their existing number," she says.

"This is achieved through a high level of industry co-operation, and a regulatory framework that is a combination of government regulation and industry self-regulation. Well-defined procedures are defined within the code which applies to all telcos, both operators and resellers, and was developed by the trade association."

The importance of a firm hand from the regulator is an issue highlighted by Horrocks, who advises regulators "maintain detailed supervision of the implementation. Otherwise a successful implementation is unlikely to be achieved," he says.

Jones adds: "It is not unusual for operators with the largest market shares to seek to delay the implementation of MNP, or to advocate solutions that may minimise porting demand - for example with long porting times or high consumer charges. Also early implementations of MNP, such as that in Singapore, did not permit full transfer of services. This problem could become more serious as applications using 3G and 4G services become more complex," she says.

"The lack of MNP is seen as a barrier to competition - customers may be less inclined to switch providers if they need to change their number. So regulators need to ensure that the MNP process does not include any potential barriers to port, and that anti-competitive behaviour (such as delaying tactics or employing winback strategies prior to porting) is not tolerated."

Jones says that regulators must also be careful not to assume that low porting levels are indicative of barriers to porting.

"Low porting levels may in fact be a result of successful retention strategies - which means the customer is still reaping the benefits of MNP in a highly competitive market," she adds.

Consumer awareness is another important factor that may need to be addressed by the regulator. In South Africa, the regulator launched a campaign to inform customers of the porting options available to them. Despite this, other factors had an impact on customer awareness. Horrocks explains: "One problem in South Africa is that the turnover of staff in shops is high and so it is not explained properly to customers, hence it is not used as much as one would expect."

Despite potential benefits for consumers, for some countries spending time and money on a MNP system might not be worthwhile, as "some countries or states may be too small for it to give a net benefit", says Horrocks.

He explains: "There are cheaper measures than can make changing number less difficult - these other alternatives have never been explored adequately, especially for small countries. An extreme example is the Channel Islands, with a total population around 150,000, where the implementation is costing over £10 per head over all the population." One such alternative to MNP is for the recipient network to foot the cost of a round of text messages alerting a customer's contacts to their new mobile number.

But whatever the cost of MNP, in terms of implementing the service, offering enhanced deals to customer or upgrading the network, operators would be wise to remember that if they do lose customers through the introduction of number portability, they will also be able to win them back through the same process. And they will already have a vital tool with which to do so: their mobile phone number.

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