Mobile number portability sets new battle front

From this Friday, owning multiple SIM cards may not be necessary, as the country rolls out Mobile Number Portability, a technology that enables subscribers to switch operators without changing their numbers. Photo/FILE

Per-erick Mulamba has three mobile lines – Safaricom, Airtel and Telkom Kenya fixed line.

The managing director of i360 Microsystems Ltd, a software developing company, says this might be an inconvenience but it helps him, like many other Kenyan telephone users, to have the best of both worlds.

From this Friday, owning multiple SIM cards may not be necessary, as the country rolls out Mobile Number Portability, a technology that enables subscribers to switch operators without changing their numbers.

It’s been billed as a turning point in Kenya’s mobile history but Mr Mulamba, a software engineer and the brain behind a number of retail smart cards, says he will not switch to any other network.

Starting April 1, 2011, mobile phone users across Kenya will enter a new era where changing mobile service operators, known technically as porting, will no longer be a hustle.

Customers unhappy with their service providers have been unable to change operators because they fear losing their numbers, which have become an identity for many, and their contacts.

Mr Mulamba says the service will not add any value to his communication. “I have Airtel and Safaricom lines, and both are useful because of their unique value-added services,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have friends with Essar Telecom (yu) or Orange mobile.

He uses his Telkom Kenya office fixed line for business. “I can’t port. I cannot be out of communication for even one hour. They say that to port it will take two days for the service to be approved. Who will wait for such long,” he said.

Mr Harry Karanja, founder of Business Made Simple, an online company registration services, says he will consider porting.

“Billing and network reliability is a big concern with my current provider,” Mr Karanja said. “But I need to understand competitors’ data and mobile money offerings.”

Kenya’s four mobile phone operators — Safaricom, Airtel Kenya, Telkom Kenya and Essar Telecom — have been carrying out technical trials, ahead of the launch. Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) says operators were ready.

“The service is expected to be commercially available starting April 1, 2011, meaning that subscribers can seek to port their number to the network of their choice,” CCK Director General Charles Njoroge said last week.

The CCK has issued basic subscriber guidelines for porting. The first step is to inform your current and new operator of the intention to switch and pay Sh173 to port.

The next move would be to surrender your SIM card to the current provider and acquire another SIM card from the new network.

CCK says, though, that the subscriber should retain the SIM card of the current (donor) operator until porting is complete for communication with porting service providers.

The service will be activated within two days and it will take at least 60 days before switching networks again. The problem with MNP is that subscribers cease to enjoy services of the previous operator.

For instance, should one move from Safaricom, they will lose other value added services like mobile money transfer service, M-Pesa, 3G services, their data offers among others.

“Mobile number portability is the last stage of competition in a market,” says Mr Njoroge, adding that mobile operators will compete on value-added services to retain subscribers.

Mr Danson Muchemi, chief executive officer of Web Tribe, which runs JamboPay online payment gateway, says MNP is a great idea.

“On my business line, I will port but for my social line maybe not because of value added services that enhance my social life,” Mr Muchemi says.

Though Airtel and Yu are excited about MNP, Safaricom and Telkom Kenya have been apprehensive about the impact it will have on the industry.

In an interview last Thursday, Safaricom chief executive officer Mr Bob Collymore said Kenya doesn’t need number portability since many subscribers have multiple SIM cards.

“The nature of this market is that many subscribers use multiple SIM cards,” Mr Collymore said. He said the firm has invested $10 million (Sh800 million) in equipment and rollout, which would have been used in other areas.

“Many mobile phone users are yet to understand the process,” he said. “We have not advertised for the service, and we believe it is a waste of money.”

Telkom Kenya chief executive officer Mr Mickael Ghossein said although Orange is ready for the service, testing of the new project has not been up to the standards.

“The operators are yet to test fully, a process that ought to take more than three months,” he said.

In India, where number portability was introduced recently, testing took more than three months. Porting Access Kenya Ltd, the firm operating the database for MNP, targets more than 300,000 ports per year.

Airtel Kenya has in the past few weeks been the most charged operator, running out promotions and advertisements to woo subscribers to join the network when porting begins.

Airtel Kenya Managing Director Rene Meza says the key customer retention and or acquisition tool will be the quality of service.

The country missed the December 31, 20 10, deadline because operators were not ready, forcing CCK to push implementation to April 1.

Number portability promises to put pressure on telecoms to improve their services and firm up their value-added services to attract and retain new subscribers.

The Sh173 fee for every change of subscriber is also being seen as an entry barrier. Mr Meza says the Sh173, which is even higher when VAT is included, charged for users to port is high.

“It is equal to a monthly airtime spend for many customers. It should be made more affordable to make it possible for customers to enjoy more of this service,” he said.

With players almost matched on the pricing front, service quality is emerging as a weapon for market share growth and executives in the mobile telephony market say it will define market share war in 2011.

In the countries it has worked, consumers have had to contend with challenges in billing, especially for roaming services. There have also been concerns over sending of short messages (SMS).

Experts warn that MNP alone is not the answer to increase end-user options and competition, but operators must innovate and improve quality of service.

Globally, nearly 40 countries have introduced MNP and have different implementation models and strategies. Being a late entrant, Kenya is expected to learn from the mistakes and challenges experienced in other markets.


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