Mobile phone numbers may be portable, but in Nigeria it was only recently that the same could be said of their numbers. When last year mobile number portability was introduced, there were predictions that throngs of customers would switch operators, but this has yet to materialise.
When mobile number number portability (MNP) - the ability to keep your mobile number when switching from one network operator to another - was introduced by the NCC on April 22, 2013, there were speculations about portability's likely impact on service quality and more. It was heralded with a lot of fun-fare and hopes.
The fact that the NCC was able to achieve the feat, having troubled telecoms operators to commence the process of porting immediately received positive reviews for the regulator.
For NCC, it was a great achievement because so much energy was committed into it, to ensure that subscribers get the best of service from any network of their choice by freely moving their mobile numbers from one network to another.
This is against the backdrop of earlier resistance from operators when number portability was initially introduced in 2006. Then, the operators advanced reasons of weak infrastructure and inadequate network coverage across the country to accommodate the number of porting subscribers.
Nigerians at first were excited about porting, and within 48 hours of its introduction, over 4,000 subscribers ported from one network to another.
NCC expressed satisfaction with the number of subscribers that ported within 48 hours of its introduction, and raised hopes that Nigerians were excited about porting and that more Nigerians would still port their numbers.
Four months after the commencement, NCC released figures of subscribers that ported in the months of May and June, 2013, indicating the percentage of total porting as well as the telecoms operator that suffered the highest loss and the operator that was most patronised by ported subscribes for the months of May and June, 2013.
Since then no porting figure has been released by the NCC, a situation that compelled most Nigerians to raise questions on the success level of MNP, nine months after it was launched in Lagos.
For most Nigerians the MNP scheme is no longer exciting in a situation mobile phone manufacturers have produced mobile phones with multiple SIM cards, such that most subscribers have the SIM cards of all the networks in one or two phones that they carry.
The NCC has said that the slow take-off of Mobile Number Portability is a global phenomenon. The commission, however, promised it would continue to monitor its growth rate, with a view to removing all obstacles that may cause further delay to its take-off.
The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Dr. Eugene Juwah, who gave insight to the growth of MNP in Nigeria, told THISDAY that NCC used mobile number portability to give Nigerian subscribers the opportunity to move from one network to another, if they are not satisfied with the services of their operators, while still retaining their original number.
"But having giving subscribers such opportunity, we cannot force them to port. But what I can also say, based on experience from other jurisdiction, is that MNP starts slowly and increases with time. For us in Nigeria, MNP started slowly and we are still monitoring its growth and auditing it to find out if the operators are keeping to the rules governing MNP in Nigeria. We have received some reports that some of the operators are not playing by the rules of the game and we are looking into that."
Explaining why MNP must come with some attached conditions, Juwah said such conditions, which Nigerians described as attached strings, provide checks and balances, and they make the entire scheme very successful.
According to Juwah, the conditions we attached to porting like the compulsory 90 days window that the subscriber must observe before he or she is free to reverse the initial porting or even port to another network, and the compulsory physical presence of the subscriber for identification purposes, among others, were burrowed from other countries where MNP is successful. He however said as porting develops and the system matures, some of the conditions would be gradually removed.
"We have also tried to make porting easy for subscribers by making it a law that subscribers must port if they are willing to do so, even if they are owing the initial operator. The operator knows its customers up to their home addresses and has every details of the customer, such that the operator can always reach the customer any time any day for debt collection, if such customer is owing the network."
In assessing the success rate of MNP, since its introduction last year, Juwah said two things would be considered. According to him some people have already learnt how to port because there was a lot of education on porting, while some others are not well informed of the technical issues with porting, as they try to port on their own from their homes, without actually going to the operator's customer centre. This he said always fail and subscribers blame it on the system.
"There are rules to it that subscribers must abide to, and we have since discovered that most people try to port from their homes, using the porting code, without physically presenting themselves to the operator. When this happens, it is bound to fail, and people might think the system is faulty," he said.
He called on Nigerians not to be in haste in judging the growth rate of MNP, since it comes as a gradual process worldwide. He however assured Nigerians that the NCC is currently analysing the reports it is receiving from the Clearing House, in order to ascertain the true level of success recorded so far. Based on the result of the ongoing analysis, we can assess the success rate of MNP in our country, and make the information public, Juwah said.
Subscribers' View Most subscribers that spoke with THISDAY said they have ported their numbers and that they enjoyed the exercise of porting, while others said they were yet to port, giving reasons that they are registered subscribers to all the networks, and that they use the SIM cards of all the networks at will, directly from their mobile phones.
Mrs. Becky Ayo, a subscriber, said she ported to Etisalat, while others said they ported to MTN, Globacom and Airtel. She however said she was in the dark as to the number of subscribers that have ported since the introduction of MNP last year. She called on NCC to release the figure of those that have ported, to enable Nigerians know whether the majority of subscribers are porting or not.
Another subscriber, Mr. Festus Ibe, said he has no need to port, since he has all the SIMs of the service providers in the two mobile phones he is carrying. "If I try using one network and it fails, I will quickly switch to another network from my mobile phone. So I do porting with my phones everyday," he said.
According to the NCC, the MNP project would soon be extended to fixed line networks like Visafone, Starcomms, Multi-Links, and MTS First Wireless.
MNP service is one aspect of telecommunication service offerings that seeks to revolutionise telecoms activities across the globe and Nigeria has joined other countries that have since embraced the service.
Singapore was the first country to launch MNP in 1997, followed by UK and Netherlands in 1999, while Spain, Switzerland and Sweden launched it between 2001 and 2002. US launched in 2003, South Africa in 2006 and Ghana in 2012.
At the very beginning of its launch, NCC reeled out its benefits to Nigerians and subscribes were highly attracted by them. Some of the benefits, according to Juwah, are the ability of Nigerians to make choice of networks, ability to experience value added services from operators, ability to experience superior network quality, and the ability to experience increase competition among telecoms operators that will in turn boost service delivery among other benefits.
Although Nigerians believed the NCC and were eager to experience the benefits as listed by NCC, but shortly after they were convinced of the benefits they started raising some doubts, based on the strings attached to the listed benefits.
Apart from the 48 hours that it takes to complete porting exercise, subscribers must be ready to make some sacrifices in order to enjoy the full benefits of the MNP scheme.
In the first instance, subscribers are not allowed to port twice within three months, even though porting is free of charge. The rule is that subscribers port once in 90 days, which means that any subscriber who experiences poor service quality on the new network, shortly after porting, will have to endure the challenges of the network and complete the 90 days period before porting out.
Again the subscriber will lose all existing data on the old SIM card, since the subscriber is moving to another network. The subscriber is expected to use up every airtime loaded into the old SIM card before porting, or loose the airtime, immediately porting is completed.
The attached strings, no doubt are posing obstacles to quick acceptance of MNP, but the NCC is still optimistic that its benefits far outweighed the perceived strings. Now that the NCC has commenced the process of assessing the success rate of Mobile Number Portability across networks, it is advisable that Nigerians give the commission enough time to come out with its findings.