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Opinions of Sunday, 22 February 2009

Columnist: Boah-Mensah, Evans

Power in your hands; Haruna Iddrisu’s valentine gift

After years spent paying too much for much too little, things are finally looking up for mobile phone users, writes Evans Boah-Mensah.

The Minister designate of Communications, Haruna Iddrisu last week appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Vetting with a strong conviction that the much-expected mobile number portability facility will be implemented in the country as soon as possible to boost competition and diversity of products and services in the telecom sector.

That arguably was the best announcement mobile phone consumers could be told after years spent paying too much for much too little; things are finally looking up for mobile phone users.

The mobile number portability system is basically a facility that allows mobile phone subscribers to move from one mobile network operator to the other without having to change their existing number.

It has been almost five years since the national telecom regulator, National Communication Authority (NCA) notified consumers of plans to roll out the number portability facility to give people choice in their mobile life but to no avail.

But now, consumers can have a little hope to cling on and must take the Minister to task, if his sentiments do not translate into actions, which we have come to know of politicians and policy makers for sometime.

However, the good news for the consumer is that with greater competition on its way in the mobile market, and greater competition between fixed line service and mobiles, the price of keeping in touch over the phone is likely to keep going down.

Certainly, consumers are not the only actors in the telecom industry who will benefit from the implementation of the number portability system, both existing operators and new entrants will also have the chance to make known what they have on the table to offer without the subscriber thinking about the potential loss of his number, friends or relatives as it is the case at present.

Number portability tango

The Managing Director of Kasapa Telecom, Robert Palitz has long been an ardent advocate of the number portability facility arguing that without the facility, competition in the mobile sector could be at the minimum level and also to the consumers’ disadvantage.

Although the penetration of mobile telephony in Ghana currently exceeds 50 per cent, it is difficult to say if the Ghanaian mobile telephone market is really competitive or not.

Ghana has had multiple mobile phone operators for a while, about six now, but until the number portability is implemented, changing operator means changing your number. And for many people having to change mobile phone number is a real hassle.

But when the facility is implemented, you can jump between operators and not have to worry about telling your nearest and dearest.

All the six phone companies in the country agree it will create more competition and lower prices for customers.

It is understood that part of the issues that has dragged the implementation of the facility has been due to the failure of operators agreeing in terms of a system that would be agreeable to everyone.

Also, the existing companies, only too keen to stress the stiff competition in the industry, believe it is unfair that the networks they have paid fortunes to create will now be available for rivals to use.

Other critics of the facility also argue that in terms of an event it is great, it is an introduction of choice but the fundamental change to the market won't be any different.

Yes, people still want great value, fantastic customer service and good network coverage. That's what mobile customers go to providers asking for and it’s the challenge for all operators to provide that.

But the reality in the country’s telecom market is that even though subscribers may want to leave a particular subscriber for another because of the fact that he may not be satisfied with the level of service provision or variety of products and services offered by a different operator, he is unable to have the will power to change due to the fear of losing his contacts.

Example of best practices

Besides, all over the world where number portability has been introduced, it has resulted in significant change and movement of subscribers across various networks.

For instance, Turkcell, Turkey’s largest mobile operator in terms of subscribers, reported last week that it attracted 650,000 net new customers in the final three months of 2008, taking its total user base to 37 million. Rival operator Avea also said that it had gained 244,000 net new subscribers since the implementation of mobile number portability (MNP) in mid-November, meaning that the country’s other cellco, Vodafone, has been the big loser since MNP was introduced; it saw customer numbers fall from 17.36 million at end-September to 16.72 million three months later.

Also in Hungary, the regulator also announced in January this year that the number of mobile subscriptions rose by 111,000 in November 2008. Based on the number of SIM cards that can receive calls, by the end of November the market share of T-mobile in the country increased from previous month’s 43.90 percent to 43.94 percent, the market share of Vodafone grew from 20.82 percent to 20.88 percent, while Pannon’s market share dropped from 35.29 percent to 35.18 percent.

Again, According to Brazil’s telecoms standards authority ABR Telecom, a total of 119,143 telephone numbers were ported in the 122 days since number portability (NP) was implemented on 1 September 2008.

These are some of the many countries in the world, whose market has seen a significant growth and competition when they implemented the mobile number portability facility.

So what is Ghana waiting for? Indeed with the coming of number portability the competition in the market will grow as every operator will be running to give out lower tariffs in an effort to grab maximum subscribers with their competitive packages.

The better part of it is that when the portability facility is provided, consumers would not have to look up to anybody or institution to determine our preferred level of service. Mobile phone consumers could decide on their own when to apply sanctions to operators who fall short of the quality of service.

NCA must not be rushed

Despite the enthusiasm to support moves to implement the number portability facility, it must be acknowledged widely that the NCA has long begun a consultation process to ensure the smooth implementation of the number portability facility and the process must not be rushed.

It was as a result of complaints over interconnectivity and poor network services that forced the NCA to sanction two mobile phone operators in 2007. And since number portability involves an operator porting, it could be a channel for abuse, which will eventually leave the consumers, everyone want to satisfy in frustration.

That is why due diligence care must be followed to ensure the successful implementation of the facility and also to ensure that the Authority was duly prepared to regulate and observe its implementation.

Much as we all want the mobile number portability facility, the NCA should not be pushed into implementing something it is not ready for just to satisfy people. That could spell disaster.

If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please send them through boahmensah@gmail.com

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