It has been a long wait for Payal Mitra, a 26-year-old public relations executive in Calcutta. Mitra was one of the first in her college to use a mobile phone. Being a gadget freak, she has changed her handset 14 times in the last eight years but she still retains the first number she had.
Brand loyalty? Not really. There have been times when Mitra wanted to shift to a new service provider for less expensive call rates or other features. But she desisted from doing so since switching to a new service provider would have meant accepting a new number. And she did not want the hassle of having to inform everyone about her new number.
People like Mitra can now rejoice. Mobile number portability (MNP) is finally being implemented in India — which means that consumers can now switch between service providers without having to change their mobile numbers.
There has been talk of introducing MNP in India for quite a few years. But telecom operators had opposed the move, saying that number portability should be implemented on fixed line services as well and that MNP would involve a lot of cost on their part as it would require the networks to be significantly upgraded.
In 2007, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had suggested that subscribers who want to keep their numbers unchanged when shifting to a new service provider be charged a one-time fee of Rs 200 which would enable operators to recover their cost. However, even now, it is unclear what charges a customer will have to pay to avail this service. Says J.S. Sharma, chairman, Trai, No charges have been fixed as yet. We hope to finalise them within 15 days. But we will definitely ensure that the charges are not exorbitant.
A deadline of December 31 has been set for the implementation of MNP in metros and Category A circles (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra) and March 20, 2010 for the rest of the country. A subscriber can apply for a change of operator only after 90 days of the date of activation of his or her mobile connection with the existing operator. According to Trai regulations, if a number has already been ported or moved once, it can be ported again only after 90 days from the date of the previous porting.
Trai has stipulated that subscribers will be allowed to retain their existing mobile numbers, whether they change telecom operators, or switch from one cellular mobile technology to another by the same service provider. Post-paid subscribers opting for MNP will be required to clear all bills issued prior to the date of his or her request. In the case of a pre-paid subscriber, an undertaking has to be given by the subscriber to the effect that he or she understands and agrees that upon porting the mobile number, the balance amount of talk time, if any, at the time of porting, shall lapse. A subscriber seeking MNP may also withdraw his or her application within 24 hours of submitting it. However, the porting charges wont be refunded.
The Trai regulations envisage a maximum period of four days for the completion of the porting process in all licensed service areas except in the case of J&K, Assam and the northeast, where the maximum time allowed is 12 days. However, efforts will be made to further reduce the porting period, says Trai.
According to the Telecommunication Mobile Number Portability Regulations, 2009, published by Trai, every access provider shall facilitate the MNP service to all subscribers, both pre-paid and post-paid and shall, upon request, provide this on a non-discriminatory basis.
To implement the service, the department of telecommunication has divided the country into two zones and a mobile number portability clearing house will serve each zone (zone 1 being northern and western India, zone 2 being eastern and southern India). A clearing house is a centralised system that interconnects mobile service providers so that numbers can be ported easily between them. To further ease porting administration, the clearing house will control and track the flow of portability requests and contain a reference data base that serves as a single repository for all ported numbers.
Says Ashok Sapra, managing director, MNP Interconnection Solutions, the body entrusted with the implementation of MNP in zone 2, Our system will automate ordering, provisioning, notification and administration for porting numbers between operators. Despite misgivings, we believe that on the whole the technological infrastructure in India will support MNP.
So how will MNP benefit a customer? Says Sharma, The main advantage would obviously be the fact that a customer can retain his old number even when he or she ports to a new provider, thus saving him the time and energy to pass on his new number to everyone. Second, we hope that customers will get better service from operators as there will be more competition.
Consumer experts second this view. MNP will be one of the most consumer-friendly initiatives as it will bring fair competition in the market. It will enable a customer to make an informed choice based on the quality of the service providers as perceived by them, says Bejon Misra, a consumer expert associated with the Jago Grahak Jago consumer movement.
However, Misra also puts in a word of caution. I am afraid that service providers, specially the big players, will try their best to harass customers on some pretext or another when it comes to migration because it is going to be against their interest.
Misra has a point. Most countries witnessed a sharp rise in the number of customers switching from one service provider to another after the implementation of MNP. Says Shankari Panchapakesan, executive director, telecom practice, The Nielsen Company, India (AC Nielsen has been studying the US telecom market for nine years), In the US, MNP was introduced in 2003. After the institution of MNP, we observed that in the first year 18 per cent of the deactivation of services was caused by MNP. The industry churn rate — the switching of subscribers from one service provider to another — increased by 22 per cent. In fact, AT&T, the market leader in US telecom services, had to suffer a substantial market share loss of 3.34 per cent.
Of course, Indian telecom service providers are now preparing to grin and bear it. We are prepared for MNP. But I would not like to comment on whether or not introducing it was necessary, says Sridhar Rao, eastern zonal head, Vodafone India. So will there be any hiccups in the implementation of MNP? Says Sharma of Trai, As of now we do not foresee any problems in implementation, but you can gauge the depth of water only when you enter it.
Sure. And customers too will find out how smooth the operation of number portability will be once the service is launched at the end of this year.