Mobile Number Portability in Nigeria: A Note For the NCC

The burden of regulation is not a trivial one. It is a very hard job being an umpire especially for a very important industry. Such is the work cut out for the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). The commission is responsible for arguably the most impressive of the Nigerian social and economic sector. Social because Telecommunication has changed the way we live and has obviously made life easier. And we cannot deny the economic impact of the industry on our country. A lot of us still remember the NITEL days when a phone call was a luxurious adventure.

The NCC has come a long way and has re-invented itself to a large extent since the launch of the Global System of Mobile Communication (GSM) in 2001. The Nigerian mobile space has grown to be the biggest in Africa judging from the subscriber base and revenue. It remains attractive despite the high cost of doing business thrust upon us by poor infrastructure especially electricity. It is no more news that all the operators rely on diesel to run their business.

This is not an analysis of the Telecommunication sector and before I get carried away; I must quickly get to the subject of this article. Fair competition, quality of service and affordable rates are just a few of the recurrent terms synonymous with the sector. Most Telecommunication regulatory bodies all over the world are constantly in research mode to ensure those indices are beneficial to subscribers in their country.

Mobile Number Portability (MNP) is a very important concept because it addresses most of the challenges faced by subscribers. Mobile number portability (MNP) enables subscribers to preserve their numbers while switching to a different mobile network. It helps competition, facilitates consumer choice and ultimately reduces switching costs. Switching cost here does not refer to the amount paid to switch to another operator but a broader definition. It includes the cost of changing numbers on business cards, notifying family members, repainting business vans because of changed numbers, etc.
The NCC is thus very correct in its decision to implement MNP in Nigeria.

The market is matured for it and will bring some positive experience for subscribers and the telecommunication market as a whole. However, the implementation is better done with a multi-stakeholder approach in place. Regulatory duties mostly involve autocratic decisions without major inputs from players in the industry but MNP throws a huge challenge that will necessitate a change in modus operandi.

There are some barriers to implementing MNP based on experience from countries where it is already in practice. One of the major barriers comes from the Mobile Network Operators (MNO). Some of their concerns are sensible and these include the following:

1. Cost of implementation: Will there be government subsidy for implementation?

2. Addition of new network nodes: This is not straightforward and requires integration into existing network nodes.

3. Reliance on MSISDN for services: MSISDN simply is your mobile number. Operators use the MSISDN to identify subscribers for on-net and off-net transactions. Hence, after MNP – they will have to start using another identifier i.e IMSI which is unique to each network. Each operator before uses their mobile prefix i.e 0802, 0803, 0804, 0805 to identify their subscribers. They also have unique IMSI ranges allocated to them. IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) is not just unique to networks locally but internationally. A lot of development will have to be done for existing applications used by mobile operators. This will cause a lot of challenges both in getting it right as well as financial implications.

4. Brand Loyalty: A lot of the network operators built their brands using their allocated prefix. The reality of the MNP is that 0803 will no longer necessarily be an MTN number prefix.

5. WASP integration: Wireless Service Operators charge contents based on agreed rates with different operators. This change with MNP and a new logic will have to be implemented.

6. Roaming: Even though the IMSI ranges are the main configuration parameters while adding new roaming partners; some operators still have to configure MSISDN prefix for partners.

7. Billing: A common method is to bill subscribers based on on-net and off-net attributes. Operators simply bill SMS, MMS and voice calls to their own prefix as on-net and charge off-net for the other prefix.

8. Fear of losing subscribers: This is not necessarily a legitimate fear if the networks are committed to good quality of service. But it is still a challenge because their Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) will most likely be impacted.

Challenges for the regulator

1. Funding: Based on negotiations, the NCC might have to do part funding of the initiative.

2. Awareness: The public must understand the pro and cons of MNP.

3. Choosing the MNP technologies and methods: There are different technologies and design for implementing MNP. The NCC must have an understanding to choose the right design. This will position the NCC as understanding the concept and possessing the leadership capabilities needed. It must also understand other Number Portability concepts like the Geographical Number Portability (GNP).

4. Managing the process: It is not a small undertaking and the bigger operators who normally see the concept as detrimental to their business while profiting the newer operators would drag their feet. The NCC has the mandate to show its fairness and the advantage it brings to the industry. The process doesn’t have to favor newer operators if the early entrants maintain a high level of quality service.

Challenges for Subscribers

1. Recognizing On or Off Net Calls: Pre-MNP makes it easy to know if you are going to be calling at a cheap on-net rate. Post MNP, it will not be easy for subscribers to differentiate numbers belonging to their own network from others.

The challenges listed above shows that every stakeholder is affected and MNP will not be successful until an approach that takes input from all is employed. This doesn’t mean the NCC will allow deliberate procrastination and insubordination but thinking through it all helps in formulating a realistic time plan.

The September 2011 deadline would be realistic only if the proper ground work has been done. All the challenges have solutions and they must be documented. It is also imperative to use lessons learned from a country like South Africa where MNP has been in operation since 2006.

Suggested Actions
1. Form a Mobile Portability Number Company which will ensure the success of the MNP. Interestingly, this worked in South Africa and the company is jointly owned by all the major telecommunication companies with oversight function provided by the regulator. The company also maintains the porting database.

2. Draw a project plan with consultations from the network operators. This has to take into considerations issues like technology and readiness timelines. To have a realistic timeline; the NCC can get ideas from countries where this has been implemented. A sign off should then be obtained from all parties.

3. The public must understand the concept, its advantages and perceived disadvantages. This can take the form of media awareness campaigns, broadcast messages by mobile operators and the use of various consumer protection associations.

4. A cost must be incurred by subscribers willing to switch. This will prevent abuse of the system.

MNP in many countries where it exists did not automatically show drastic increase in switching behavior. But it has provided an alternative that is much needed and ensures that operators treat their subscriber base better. The process of implementation is thus as important as the objective. It has to be right and any attempt to rush without proper planning will eventually be the undoing. The NCC should do this in a professional manner for the benefit of the Nigerian consumer.

Ayo Oladejo is a Telecommunication professional and project/programme manager. He has worked with three mobile operators in Nigeria, Swaziland and South Africa and has consulted for mobile operators in more than 7 countries.

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