Pakistan offers lessons in mobile number portability

Pakistan offers lessons in mobile number portability

Arsalan Mahmud, the 27-year-old chief executive of Islamabad-based web hosting company Nexus Technologies, is one of the 100,000 customers who have changed their existing telecom operator, but retained their old number after Pakistan introduced mobile number portability, or MNP, on 23 March.

“Not only was the network congestion and call drops becoming too much to live with, even customer service of Ufone was deteriorating every single day," Mahmud said in a telephone interview.

As Indian firms prepare for mobile number portability, starting with the metros in 2008, Pakistan’s experience with the concept provides several lessons.

One, it does benefit new entrants. Two, it encourages companies to improve the quality of service. And three, it does not cause the widespread erosion in subscriber base that some fear.

In Pakistan, which has over 70 million mobile telephony subscribers (2.5 million sign on every month), the transfer rate since the launch of MNP has been just around 0.14%.

Mahmud, who shifted from Pakistan’s second largest operator Pakistan Telecom Mobile Ltd’s Ufone service to newly launched Telenor Pakistan, said he was not getting enough network coverage in Lahore, a city he frequented for business meetings every month.

In the past few months, over 30,000 subscribers from existing operators such as Pakistan Mobile Co. Ltd, Paktel Ltd and Pakcom Ltd, have moved to Telenor.

In the first month of MNP, around 10,000 subscribers ported their numbers to new operators. “Today, we are seeing around 15,000-20,000 customers port their numbers every month," said a Pakistan government official who did not wish to be identified.

And MNP put pressure on existing operators in Pakistan to improve their service.

“After introducing MNP, we witnessed a dramatic improvement in network quality at Pakistan’s biggest operator, Mobilink," said the official in a telephone interview.

Mobilink is the brand under which Egypt, Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Holdings offers phone services in Pakistan. The company has about 30 million subscribers, and controls over 40% of the market.

The Pakistan Telecom Authority, or PTA, which regulates the country’s telecom industry, made it mandatory for subscribers to stay with the new operator for six months after porting their number. “It usually takes around four days to port a number, but we are trying to see if that can be reduced," said the official.

In 2004, when Pakistan awarded telecom licences to Norway-based Telenor ASA and Abu Dhabi-headquartered Warid Telecom International, both telcos insisted on the introduction of MNP. “These operators were entering the market and wanted entry barriers to reduce," the official added.

Both Telenor and Warid have added more than three million subscribers during the past six months alone. With around 12.5 million subscribers, Telenor has become the third largest operator in Pakistan, behind Ufone, which has around 15.4 million mobile customers.

New operators such as Telenor have been able to attract high-end business users by offering more sophisticated features enabling faster Internet access through their networks. For instance, Telenor was the only operator offering high speed data transfer through EDGE, short for Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution, around the time number portability was introduced in Pakistan. “I carry Apple’s iPhone handset, which supports EDGE," said Mahmud. The phone has not been officially launched in Pakistan, but can be hacked to run on any mobile phone network.

In the year ended June, Telenor “achieved nearly 200% growth in its subscriber base—the highest growth in the industry by a wide margin," said Syed Hasnat Masood, director, corporate communications, Telenor Pakistan. “With increased awareness of MNP, we will see greater impact on portings, quality of networks and customer services," he added.

After the country introduced MNP, Pakistan’s operators formed a consortium and promoted a company—Pakistan Mobile Database Co.—to handle porting requests. “The operators invested around $1.54 million (about Rs6 crore) in establishing the system," said the official from Pakistan.

India’s department of telecommunications has said that the cost of porting will be borne by the telcos.

“All six operators formed a consortium and floated a holding company to manage the customer database," said a senior official at India’s telecom regulator Trai, who did not wish to be named. “It could be a good model to follow..."

Trai is currently working on guidelines for number portability. “We have looked at how it has worked in neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Hong Kong and Singapore," said the Trai official.