The implications of mobile number portability (MNP) were discussed at a Workshop on Implementing Mobile Number Portability, held in August 2007 in Islamabad, Pakistan. The forum, comprising participants from the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, provided insight into the technical, regulatory and operational aspects impacted by the porting process, with a focus on the Pakistani MNP experience.
The reasons cited in favor of MNP were classified into advantages to subscribers and regulators. The former were benefited by an increase in choice (of packages) and the eliminated costs of having to inform third parties of a number change, while the latter saw MNP as an approach to attract new investment and generate healthy competition. Operators on the other hand, were split in their views; new entrants and operators with smaller market share were of the view that it would create fair play in the industry, but larger operators with significant market power were, unsurprisingly, against the implementation of MNP.
High implementation costs were the main reasons against number portability. Mr. John Horrocks, an MNP consultant who spoke at the Workshop, demonstrated that a basic costs-benefit analysis of the portability process showed that implementing this service in smaller countries with populations of less than 10 million was not a feasible option, as the costs outweighed the benefits significantly. Instead, he suggested a few alternatives for these countries that would make number changes easier for subscribers (e.g.: operators send free SMS to all contacts on SIM, low cost for maintaining old number in parallel, etc), and ensure quality of service and competition among operators.
Figure 1: MNP implementations by country
Source: Presentation slides, MNP Workshop, August 2007
Mr. Horrocks also talked about the results of MNP implementations and lessons learnt in the countries listed in Figure 1. The success of MNP implementation is measured by the percentage of ported numbers, and it is evident that in countries with higher mobile phone penetration, competition and awareness, porting rates are high (e.g. Hong Kong and Australia). It was interesting to note though, that in some cases where MNP was implemented successfully, it proved to be an economic failure (e.g. Ireland, Finland, Malta, etc), while the implementations in UK and Netherlands were failures in all respects.
These varied results can be attributed to a number of reasons. Hong Kong’s MNP implementation, built on an already implemented solution set in place for fixed-line services, was driven heavily by the regulator; in addition, a highly competitive market structure in a technologically-aware community, and the fact that the introduction coincided with the entry of four new operators into the market, ensured portability a success there. The Australian regulator persistently promoted number portability to the public, while maintaining porting times of less than 3 hours on average, which eventually led to the successful implementation of MNP.
On the other hand, in the Irish case where MNP implementation was a success, the lack of competition (two incumbents and one weak new entrant) proved porting to be an economic failure. The same happened in Finland, where implementation was a success, but due to the absence of minimum contract periods and the provision of high incentives to port (from one operator to another), operators started losing heavily. This resulted in the introduction of minimum contract periods which, in turn, reduced the porting rate from 40% to 10% leading to economic failure. In the UK, Oftel (regulator at the time) pushed for MNP hoping it would increase competition, but did not play a hands-on role in the implementation phase. Additionally, only one operator in the UK was in favor of portability, and these factors collectively played a large role in the resulting failure.
A number of lessons can be learnt from these situations. Mr. Horrocks explained that it was essential for both regulators and operators to be in favor of and have heavy involvement throughout the porting process. The success of MNP depended greatly on competition and awareness and therefore it was the duty of both regulator and operator to keep subscribers informed of all things related to porting. He also said that it was important for regulators to understand that MNP did not create competition, but only improved it. Furthermore, for number porting to be successful it was necessary for a clear goal to be established, with a good set of rules (technical and legal) laid down from the start of the MNP process. He also stressed that porting time (i.e. time taken to port a number from operator A to operator B) had to be minimal, ideally one day at most, to ensure a successful MNP implementation.
The Workshop also covered the technicalities involved in number porting. Various features such as the number portability database configurations (centralized, distributed and hybrid), the call/SMS routing schemes (direct and indirect), and payment mechanisms were presented over the course of three days. The use of ENUM and NGN systems to make the porting process simpler were also discussed.
In light of these technical developments, call forwarding as a low-cost solution to number portability was not seen as the most efficient way to deploy MNP, although it was implemented in Singapore. Over 10 years ago, when the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS) discussed MNP as a means to lower number switching costs for subscribers and increase competition among operators, they explored three alternatives: 1. call forwarding, 2. originating re-route, and 3. Intelligent Network (IN) solutions. While Option 2 deviated from the GSM standard and affected services such as international roaming, Option 3 was not technologically mature yet, and therefore they settled for Option 1. They did not, however, rule out the possibility of implementing Option 3 at a later date. (Read more about MNP in Singapore)
The technical specifications employed in the number portability process in Pakistan were also described in detail. Similarly, the regulatory framework (including operator rights and obligations, charging schemes, best practices, and policy implications) required for the successful implementation of MNP was communicated by members of the PTA who were engaged in the Pakistani MNP process.
The key lesson learnt from the Workshop was that there was no standard MNP solution for a country. Every solution was unique with success riding on a number of factors.