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Cell number shackles break
- Portability allowed in metros, big guns cry foul

New Delhi, Nov. 12: Mobile phone users in the four metros of Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai will be able to lug their numbers along when they relocate from one city to another.

The agony of getting to grips with a new mobile phone number — which many regard as a digitised code of individuality — and text messaging it to countless friends and colleagues will end next year.

The department of telecommunications (DoT) today announced plans to introduce mobile number portability — a feature that enables end-users to retain their telephone numbers when changing service providers and/or locations — from the fourth quarter of 2008.

Several countries have introduced the feature though only Iceland, Canada and the US offer full number portability across fixed line and mobile networks. In South Asia, Pakistan offers this service for mobiles for a fee of Rs 500 while Sri Lanka cleared plans for this facility in August.

Studies have found that even if a customer is not satisfied with an operator’s services or tariffs, he or she often persists with the telecom company because it is difficult to notify the

new number to a wide circle of contacts.

A DoT official said: “Number portability will allow customers to freely move to any operator of their choice and thus derive the full benefits of competition through low tariff, high quality of service, wide coverage and enhanced features offered by particular service providers.”

However, he added that the technical modalities are still being worked upon and would be provided to telecom operators soon.

“We still need clarity on whether a mobile customer can retain the entire number or only the last five or six digits of his number. Otherwise, the entire process will be simple and beneficial for customers,” an official said.

The Technical Engineering Centre (TEC), the technical arm of DoT, will soon submit a report on all technical issues relating to number portability.

Communications minister A. Raja said the portability feature could not be implemented on a nationwide basis immediately and was, therefore, being restricted to the four metros which constitute 18.29 per cent of all mobile users in the country.

The GSM players were peeved by the move to restrict the feature to only the metros. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents the GSM players like Airtel and Vodafone, said the government’s plan was designed to benefit a select operator which was keen on entering the GSM segment and poaching subscribers from the existing players.

“Why is portability being announced only for mobile and not for fixed line and that also only in big cities where connectivity is not a problem unlike other places' We are concerned about these half measures,” said COAI secretary general T.V. Ramachandran.

Reliance Communications chairman Anil Ambani welcomed the announcement and his words suggested the GSM players’ fears are not misplaced.

“This is a forward-looking initiative. It is pro-competition, pro-consumer and above all pro-choice. For the first time in the four metros, GSM operators will face real competition,” Ambani said.

Reliance, whose service is based on a technology called CDMA, has secured the nod to operate on GSM across the country, pending the resolution of a controversy linked to availability of airwaves.

The GSM veterans, which have a stranglehold on the metros, fear that portability would allow Reliance to eat into their core markets. But the metro players cannot reply in the same coin unless and until portability is allowed across the country.

Vodafone and BPL refused to comment on regulatory issues.

The DoT announcement comes nearly 20 months after Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) recommended a phase-wise introduction of number portability across the country. The telecom operators had earlier opposed the system, stating huge investments would be required to implement number portability on a national scale.

Singapore –the first country to introduce the feature – is now establishing a centralised number portability database in order to offer full number portability by the end of this year.

Analysts estimate that operators will have to fork out around Rs 180-200 crore in order to offer number portability in the metros. Pan-India implementation of mobile number portability would cost the industry over Rs 800 crore.

Industry experts say number portability is expected to increase the overall churn in the industry, especially for the top operators in each circle.

“The average churn in the industry is around 3-4 per cent. With number portability, it will go up to 8-10 per cent at least in the first few months. It is bound to impact incumbent operators which will lose some of their high-paying customers,” said Sudipto Basu, a telecom analyst.

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