Is the mobile number portability idea dead on arrival? Experts differ

“Multi-Siming” — a phenomenon where a subscriber owns a Sim card from every network — makes MNP an idea dead on arrival, says an industry expert

“Multi-Siming” — a phenomenon where a subscriber owns a Sim card from every network — makes MNP an idea dead on arrival, says an industry expert     

Mobile number portability (MNP) was once supposed to be the next best thing to happen to mobile telephony in East Africa.

Launched in Kenya in April 2011, amid talk that the service heralded a new dawn, regulators and small or new operators alike would find out soon enough that they took too optimistic a view of the purported benefits of MNP.

Number portability, a service that allows telephone users to change their network without changing their number, was readily embraced by operators eager to chip at the market share of Safaricom, the market leader, and doggedly pursued by a regulator hyping the service as a means to foster greater competition.

Three years later, the regulator, Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), and Safaricom’s rivals have only met with disappointment.

Just months after the introduction of the service, one of its supposed prime beneficiaries, then Orange Telkom Kenya chief executive Mickael Ghossein, said he thought the process had failed and needed to be relaunched.

But Kenya’s failure will not stop the rest of East Africa pressing on in pursuit of MNP. Under the umbrella East African Communications Organisation, telecommunications regulators in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have agreed that number portability is the way to go.

Although Tanzania was expected to follow Kenya in December 2011, the failure to meet “some requirements,” according to the country’s regulator, forced a deferral of the launch.

READ: EAC plan for number portability hits a snag

Meanwhile, Uganda and Rwanda have embarked on processes to establish the viability of number portability.

Uganda has began consultations with operators, and the Rwanda Utility Regulatory Authority (Rura) has commissioned a study. In theory, number portability should promote competition and spur innovation in the market, with the consumer ending up as the winner.

READ: Rura commissions study on number portability

According to iConectiv’s Harald Hauser, number portability potentially makes it easier for newer entrants to gain market share, enhancing competition among operators and creating downward pressure on prices. It should also allow consumers to make better choices while minimising the costs associated with changing a service provider or changing a phone number.

The idea of changing providers without suffering the cost of a lost identity is something iConectiv, an Ericsson-owned MNP solutions provider that has worked with the Uganda Communications Commission, advocated as a consumer right at a recent engagement that brought together the Ugandan regulator and the country’s telecom operators to discuss number portability. It is an idea that finds favour with James Wire Lunghabo, an ICT consumer rights advocate.

“It will help consumers vote with their wallets and ensure providers respond positively,” he said.

Fostering competition is one of the most popular justifications for taking the MNP route.