Mobile Number Portability – Only A ‘feel-good’ Factor?

Posted on August 5, 2011 in Business and Economy, YKA Editorials

By Amritapa Basu

With the coming of 3G, the initial hullabaloo about Mobile Number Portability seems to have died down but the sordid underlying realities stare into our faces and no doubt remain unanswered. The much awaited revolution in the telecom industry – Mobile Number Portability (MNP) was formally launched in India on the 20th of January, 2011 amidst much hype and fanfare. Many customers were eagerly looking forward to MNP launch in India as it allows one to change one’s service provider but retain the old number. Previously, if one were to change the service-provider, it would come with a new number. Consequently it entailed the tedious work of informing all contacts about the change in number and businessmen, especially, avoided this in fear of losing client-base. MNP promised to be available for both pre-paid and post-paid customers and is also available also on GSM and CDMA platforms.

To know how to port your number, check this out.

But the service came with its Restrictions

  • MNP, as of now, is offered only within the circles. That is, you cannot retain your number if you change cities.
  • You have to wait for 90 days before second number porting or if you have taken up a new connection. This is to prevent misuse of the facility and frequent switching.

The Service Promised the  Consumer to be the Gainer

Dr. Manmohan Singh described telecom industry as one of India’s great success stories and said “More Indians have been touched by this revolution than any other program in the history of our nation” (NDTV). He touted the introduction of MNP as going ‘a long way in enhancing customer satisfaction’. Telecom Minister said that he has proved that the customer is the king. Of course, the subscribers stand to gain with the introduction of MNP as the service providers are vying to retain their old customers and simultaneously trying to lure new ones with a host of freebies and discounts.

“After the scheme, operators went on to improve their services in a huge way,” said S.C. Khanna, secretary general of the Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUSPI). “By offering attractive freebies and discounts to retain and attract customers, the customers have certainly gained in huge terms,” Khanna had told IANS. BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) was reported to offer new pre-paid customers free talk time worth Rs. 100 and post-paid customers getting 50 percent rebate on their first bill. Bharti Airtel also offered free talk time, special rates and free SMS. Bharti Airtel CEO Sanjay Kapoor said “I think the customer at the high end is very discerning and is looking at sustainability and therefore large networks, innovative services, bringing in value addition life enriching services are all going to play a very vital role.” (NDTV)

Service Providers said “It has been a Success”

Business Standard report on the 28th February read – “According to latest available figures, Vodafone Essar gained as many as 190,000 customers. Idea Cellular follows next with its catchy ‘No Idea! Get idea’ campaign which was rolled out even before MNP was formally announced with a gain of 150,000 subscribers. The country’s largest operator, Bharti Airtel remained at number three with a net gain of about 148,000 subscribers till date. But Reliance Communications which was at the second place faced a net loss of 306,400 customers.” Sources reported that Vodafone and Idea Cellular had the highest port-ins in Delhi while BSNL lost the most subscribers.

However, a report in The Hindu (1st April, 2011) read — ‘The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Adilabad, a district in Andhra Pradesh has gained 1,600 new mobile customers, better than any other service provider. General Manager M.L. Narsimha Rao says this is an indication of the faith reposed by the people in the telecom giant.’ BSNL emerged as the most preferred Service operator in Andhra Pradesh Telecom Circle since the launch of MNP in the state. BSNL Andhra Pradesh circle has so far received 100,000 port-in requests since the mobile number portability service was launched this year. “There had been 74,000 actual migrations into BSNL and 24,000 ported out,” Rajeev Agarwal, chief general manager, BSNL (AP circle).With BSNL 3G services already on the roll, there are reportedly 1.54 lakh 3G active connections in Andhra Pradesh.

Among the new operators in the field Uninor has also reportedly gained more customers than they lost.

But Consumers said “It is only a ‘feel-good’ facility!”

Many subscribers have complained that their request for changing operators have been turned down for no satisfactory reason. Mr. Rajat Dubey’s request to port out of his existing mobile connection was rejected citing ‘contractual obligations’. Numerous complaints by customers about operators who have refused to clear MNP requests can be seen on sites which were giving information regarding how to go about using MNP. ‘Contractual obligations’ is found to be the most common reason cited. But can an individual customer be held for a contract signed by a corporate body? Co-incidentally, the complaints are found to be against leading telecom services — Vodafone, Airtel, Reliance, Loop Mobile (BPL). Some customers complained of invalid UPC (unique porting code).

Ashok K Sapra, Managing Director of MNP Interconnection Telecom Solutions says, “There are some technical issues. The process is so elaborate, it needs multiple entities to work together and there are steps that can be executed only after the previous one; these add up to slowing the system down and driving up costs.” He adds that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had set out eight criteria for which an operator could reject the port request of a customer who wanted to ditch it. “No one wants to lose customers. When we had started out, 19 percent of rejections were invalid. Now the number has actually gone up to 23 percent and most rejections do not necessarily indicate technical glitches.” (The Statesman)

The fear of losing out on its customers is leading these service providers to virtually ‘trap’ subscribers in various schemes, without realising the fact that this may jeopardize their rapport with the consumers. A complaint on a consumer complaints forum reads – I have been using Loop Mobile (erstwhile BPL) since last 6 years now. Till now I was contemplating change of service provider. However, today I received an SMS from Loop saying that I being an old customer am eligible for 1000 free SMS every month for a year and for that I need send an OK SMS to get registered. The moment I did so, they sent me another SMS saying “Your request has been registered. The contractual period of this offer is 1 year”. This was not disclosed in the previous SMS. So, I called to ask the implication of the same and was told that I couldn’t opt for MNP for a year now. Obviously I got the same cancelled. But the audacity of the operator is unbelievable for having tried such cheap tricks to retain customers. For this reason alone I would now really consider moving away from Loop Mobile. Also, how do I lodge a complaint against this unfair practice by Loop Mobile to TRAI?

The inevitable blame-game has also come into the purview. Another consumer complaint reads — “I requested for porting to Airtel from Reliance GSM. I submitted all the documents with the filled-in form and handed over to Airtel on 15th February, but it remains pending for over nine days as against the mandatory seven days limit for completion of porting. I spoke to both Airtel and Reliance GSM, but they are giving vague answers and blaming each other. While Airtel is saying that the process is not complete from Reliance’s side (Airtel has not received approval from Reliance), Reliance is blaming Airtel for not receiving the documents for request from Airtel. I do not know whom to trust.”

However, Anurag Prashar, president, corporate and customer services, Reliance Communications (RCom) said to MoneyLife “We do not believe in rejecting port outs, unless there are valid reasons to reject the porting request like incorrect UPC (unique porting code), non-completion of 90 days clause as laid down by TRAI in the MNP procedure. We believe that rejecting port out requests is a poor, short-sighted approach. Such an action rips the relationship with the customer forever. We believe that RCom customers who have ported out will return to us after 90 days, as no other competitor will be able to match the quality of network, products and services that we offer. MNP is now here to stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

There has been an approximate 3.8 million MNP requests as in Feb-end (Business Standard), which in itself sounds big but when compared to the huge 771 million consumers in India represents a very small percent. Rajan S. Mathew, Director of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said that number portability scheme has not managed to attract more than 7-8 percent of subscribers even in the international market. In India, it is even less, because 90 percent of the subscribers have pre-paid and are attracted by low tariffs. (IANS) After this scheme, though the operators have become more alert, no service provider is exceedingly better than the other in the Indian Telecom market, therefore resulting in the low-churn-outs. Going by the trend in the first three months of the service since it was launched, industry insiders say only about four percent of India’s cell phone users will have changed their service providers by the end of one year as against the initial estimate of ten percent. Ashok K Sapra, managing director of MNP Interconnection Telecom Solutions said “When the Government had set the tariff to a maximum of Rs. 19 for the service, it had envisaged a far greater number of people applying for the feature. With the actual numbers far from the expectations, it translates to far lower revenues”. (The Statesman) Sapra also added that his company had over the past four years made investments of more than $35-40million in setting up the entire back-end for the operations after bagging its 10-year licence in 2009.

The Prospective Solution

Awareness and quick redressing of complaints is imperative to make this service viable. North-Eastern states, Jammu &Kashmir, Bihar showed noticeable low-porting rates, which could be due to lack of awareness. Amidst the glitz and glamour surrounding MNP the service providers tried to woo subscribers when many were not even aware the concept and facilities of MNP. Kerala has already taken the first step to redress this by organizing a Seminar on Mobile Number Portability on April 27, 2011 where each participating mobile service providers set up their information booths at YMCA and provided information as to how to avail the MNP service. (Source)

As Sapra puts it — “It is a bit too early to draw conclusions. We have made significant investments to this business…we would definitely have to wait and see how this goes”. True, with the 2G scams still fresh in consumers’ minds and the 3G technology desperately vying for attention, we only have to ‘wait and watch’ where this ‘revolution in the Telecom history’ is headed, if at all.

The writer is the Sub-Editor at Youth Ki Awaaz, operating out of Kolkata.