What is mobile number? What is your smile number?" went a 1990s hit Bollywood song. Lots of mobile subscribers were indeed smiling when the mobile number portability (MNP) option was introduced in January after many delays. It allowed subscribers to switch service providers but retain their mobile number which would get ported to the new provider. Anyone could switch—prepaid, postpaid, GSM,CDMA—as long as they were with the old operator for a minimum of three months. An SMS is sent to the telecom regulatory authority of India (Trai), a unique porting code is received, which has to be taken to the existing service provider’s office and a few documents filled. Behind the scenes, the operator would take the request to the mobile portability clearing house which will deactivate the number from the old and restart it with the new provider. In just seven working days (that magic number for all services, the other is four) you would be hitched to a new telco! Could life get simpler?

Within 40 days of the launch of MNP, there was a flood of applications. Around 4 million dissatisfied customers applied to change their operators. The maximum demand came from Gujarat where 365,000 subscribers applied to change their operators by the end of February. Karnataka followed with 318,000 requests and then Tamil Nadu 270,000 people grabbed the chance to change their telco.

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These are substantial numbers, but three months later, subscribers are shaking their heads in dismay and asking if life really needs to become so complicated for availing a long awaited facility. I spoke to a few harassed customers, who were very easy to find as there was a huge pool to pick them from. S. Chakraborty’s 70-year-old mother lives alone in Kolkata after two knee replacement surgeries. Her number had been disconnected without intimation and restored after a lot of follow up. Upset by this incident, Chakraborty, who works for NTPC Ltd, Nagpur, seized the opportunity provided by MNP to switch to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL). He put in the request for porting out in early February, which is still pending. The Airtel office in Gariahat has made bizarre suggestions to call Trai directly or resorted to good old stalling. BSNL says several such requests are pending and there’s nothing they can do until Airtel releases him from its network.

Sandip Sachan who works for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Kanpur, wanted to port out from Reliance Communications to Airtel, for better coverage in the interior areas of Uttar Pradesh. He was surprised when told that he was under a “lifetime contractual obligation" with Reliance, and hence could not move out. The design engineer had a few Ghajini moments because he could not recall someone visiting his home and getting his signature on any such document, but Reliance insisted that’s what happened. The second attempt was rejected for the same reason. The third due to “technical reasons". Persistently, he applied again last Saturday and received an SMS that his “donor has accepted the request" and is waiting, as I write this column, for the switchover to happen.

Vikram Chhajed, a businessman in Basavangudi, Bangalore, gave a request in end January to Reliance Communications so that he could port out to Idea. Tired of getting tossed around between the two, he decided to go to Tata Docomo. He says: “Reliance applied charges for call barring and some SMS services which I never asked for, just so I don’t fulfil the zero balance criterion." He cleared the charges but now when he sends the “PORT" SMS to 1900, he receives the message that his “number porting out is under process". So he is in limbo—neither able to get a new unique code nor achieving portability. He has made wasted visits to the nodal officer’s office, which is at a fair distance. Four months later, he is yet to break away from the grip of his original telco.

There are no exceptions among the telcos, when it comes to dissatisfying customers who want out. Citing “lifetime contracts", outstanding dues or subscription to special plans, incumbent operators are able to create hurdles for existing users. This is a design flaw in the policy and defeats the freedom that the MNP promised. Customers feel that things are made deliberately difficult for high usage customers who have stayed with the same provider for long. The process itself takes much longer than the stipulated time of a week.

Further, a request is valid for 15 days and if erroneously rejected, cannot be corrected and the whole process has to begin again. That’s why R. Mohan in Chennai is yet to switch from Aircel to Airtel after his request got rejected for “technical limitations". Several calls were made to the customer care numbers, who gave him conflicting responses. Finally, he found a way to escalate the case. The nodal officer said it was an error and he should re-submit his documents, but the busy software engineer has not found time to re-apply, so continues with Aircel, despite being unhappy with the network coverage.

Trai chairman J.S. Sarma explained in a telecon that he is reviewing the problem very closely. Apparently 39% of all porting requests made are still pending for closure across India. He is aware that sometimes even a pending amount of 1.50 is shown as “overdue charges". Next week, he will be working at making the condition of “contractual obligation" more specific. Trai’s recognition of the need for more energetic tracking of such cases and tighter regulation is a good sign for hapless subscribers.

Telcos need to recognize that like in any relationship, letting go is always difficult. But holding on desperately when one side wants to break off will just cause distress. If Trai imposes monetary penalties for every wrongly handled case of MNP, letting go will suddenly become a lot easier.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com