Mobile Number Portability, A Panacea For Poor Telecom Services?

Nigerians have been reacting to the newly proposed Mobile Number Portability (MNP) policy by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

MNP is simply the ability of mobile telephone subscribers to retain their phone numbers when changing from one mobile network provider to another. MNP is currently available in over 50 countries, including Ghana, Morocco, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Pakistan, and Brazil.

“I am so excited about this whole Mobile Number Portability idea. I will now be able to change my service provider and still keep my number,” these were the words of an excited Youth Corp member, Fisayo Akisanmi when asked what she felt about the newly proposed MNP policy.

Quality of Services

Ms Akisanmi just like many other telecoms subscribers in Nigeria have been complaining about the poor Quality of Services (QoS) delivered by network operators. 

It is in this light that the NCC thought it wise to introduce the MNP at no cost to subscribers as it strongly believes that when fully operational, it would immensely impact on the quality of services offered by service providers.

It would also allow for competition amongst service providers as consumers would have the ability to switch network providers, while they retain their old mobile phone number.

As a result, service providers will need to actively compete, and provide innovative as well as improved customer service in order to retain and expand their subscriber base.

Already, the NCC has rolled out a document containing guidelines for implementing the MNP and the exercise is slated to take off by the last quarter of the year as mobile phone companies have been directed to provide Mobile Number Portability services.

The document titled, ‘Nigeria Mobile Number Portability –Business rules and port order process,’ gives details of the business rules that will guide the processes for porting mobile numbers amongst the NCC, the subscribers, and the mobile service providers licensed by the commission to provide mobile telecommunications service in the country.

These rules are to guide against abuse and distortion of network by subscribers who might like to switch more frequently than required as well as the service providers.

The NCC intends to engage the services of an independent company to oversee the process. A consortium of three firms have won the bid to operate, they are Inter connect Clearing House Nigeria, Telecordia of USA and Saab Grintek of South Africa.

Bright as the idea of MNP looks, not all stakeholders in the industry share the same optimism with the NCC as some have expressed doubt that the introduction of MNP alone, without addressing other key issues bordering on capacity development will only aggravate the poor services currently being complained about by millions of subscribers.

Engr. Gbenga Adebayo, President, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), at a recent function in Lagos argued that Nigeria is not yet ripe for the MNP owing to some prevailing  situations in the country.

“I can't assure you that it will improve quality of service and I will tell you why. Imagine if one network goes down for whatever reason, I don't have any guarantee that the other networks will have enough headroom to accommodate the capacity of the network that has gone down. The biggest network will naturally have the larger problem because it carries more loads and any impact on its network will impact other networks,” he said.

For Engr. Adebayo, reviewing the capacities of network providers as well as their impact should be properly looked into before the issue of number portability is made into law.

“Yes, operators are ready for the number portability, but the readiness of the industry or otherwise need to be further explored so that we don't introduce things that will again begin to impact on the stability of the various networks,” the ALTON boss said.

Similarly, Titi Omo-Ettu, president, the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) believes that the MPN's greatest challenge would be in its implementation.

“Fantastic as the advantages of MNP can be, my opinion however is that the idea is a theoretical truism than a practical one in an environment like the Nigerian market,” Ms Omo-Ettu said. “With quality generally bad across the networks and phone users already multiple-subscribe to different networks, I wonder how MNP constitutes a solution to quality control,” adding that “what constitutes good quality and the necessary education to make sound judgment is still lacking.”

The Brand Platform

In the meantime, industry experts have highlighted how MNP could disrupt mobile service providers. One major way is the loss of a branding platform.

Some mobile service providers have been using the number prefix as an identifier for their services. For example, the number prefix for MTN Nigeria is currently 0803/0706.

Without these exclusive number prefixes, service providers will lose one of their branding platforms, and with the loss of the number prefix identifier, mobile subscribers will not be able to recognise which service providers they are calling or receiving a call from.

The need to retain a regular number and the risk of losing that number when changing service providers might also be a concern for customers when opting to change their service provider. However, experts say with the emergence of MNP, this barrier is lowered, and service providers have to deal with a potential increase in subscriber churn, leading to further price-based competition among service providers.

Higher cost structure will be another headache for the service providers. With many attractive choices available in the market and the freedom to change service providers, mobile subscribers can afford to be more demanding. Therefore, service providers have to invest more in customer retention programs. This implies more investments for service providers in advertising and loyalty programs.

The Mobile Service Providers can also benefit from MNP as the platform enables incumbent and new service providers that position themselves well to effectively establish their services in the market.

Incumbent service providers are often market leaders in terms of quality of services, network availability and coverage, customer service, packaging and pricing. Therefore, incumbents are able to retain their high-valued mobile users, who contribute to the significant bulk of their overall revenue.

These high-valued mobile users are often post paid subscribers, business users, and heavy consumer users who value the ability to retain their numbers. With MNP, incumbents could easily attract other post paid or business users from other lower performing service providers, who otherwise would be reluctant to switch due to the risk of losing their current mobile numbers.

The MNP policy on the long run is likely going to lead to decrease in mobile tariffs and increase in mobile-related services. Other benefits of the MNP includes: Improvement in customer service and satisfaction, differentiation and innovation in mobile packages and value-added services, introduction of new technology, ease of market entry for new participants, and fair market competition.

Available statistics revealed (as at Dec 2011) that MTN had over 41 million subscribers; GLO had about 20 million; Airtel with slightly over 16 million; and Etisalat with a little over 10 million. With this data, MNP would further foster healthy competition, thus boosting innovation, improving and building strong brand loyalty.

With the recent success that MNP recorded in Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, Nigerians believe the service would aid the reduction of carrying two to three mobile phones around and may decrease the demand for dual and tri-sim phones. They however said the implementation of the number portability would determine the genuineness of the Nigerian Communications Commission in ensuring subscribers get value for their money.

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