17 January 2013

Nigeria: Between Number Portability Implementation and Service Quality

The proposed implementation of Number Portability across networks of Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) operators, has elicited mixed reactions. Emma Okonji views the fears and confidence raised on the planned implementation process, by subscribers and operators respectively. Excerpts:

Implementing number portability across GSM networks has been the dream and delight of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and the telecoms subscribers. The NCC had always battled to ensure its implementation, but would always meet stiff opposition from the operators, who had felt before now, that the time was not ripe for its implementation.

NCC has however insisted it would enforce the implementation of number portability by the telecoms operators, before the end of March 2013, and Nigerians are watching to witness the success of the NCC's renewed plan on number portability.

In technical parlance, number portability is a process of migrating from one network to another, in search of better service quality, while the subscriber still retains the original mobile number. The subscriber is at will to choose any network from where calls would be generated and received, as long as the subscriber chooses to remain on a particular network.

The Genesis

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), had twice expressed strong interest in implementing number portability across GSM networks, and had twice faced stiff resistance from operators, who openly expressed their state of unpreparedness, vis-a-vis, the strength of their network capacities in rolling out the service.

First was in 2009, under the leadership of its immediate past Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe. After he introduced it to operators, they welcomed it but promised to take a closer look at it, in order to determine its possibility.

Few months later, the operators spoke with one voice, and gave reasons why it was not possible at that time. According to them, eight years of GSM operation was not enough time to build strong network capacities that would withstand the pressure from number porting. They were afraid their network may crash, should they go ahead to implement it. They cited South Africa and some other countries that successfully implemented number portability, after several years of rollout of GSM services in those countries. The operators vehemently refused its implementation and asked the NCC to give them more time. It was like NCC saw reasons with them, and rescinded its plan on the implementation.

Few years down the line, precisely in 2011, NCC, under the current leadership of Dr. Eugene Juwah, re-introduced number portability and the operators reluctantly accepted it and December 2012 was chosen for the rollout of number portability, but few months to the rollout date, there was no sign of commitment on the side of the operators, a situation that led to trading of blames between the NCC and the operators.

The NCC, on one hand, was accusing the operators of failure to introduce number portability, as was earlier agreed, while the operators on the other hand, were accusing NCC of complexities in handling and supporting the issue of number portability.

After much argument, it was agreed that operators should rollout out the service before the end of the first quarter of this year.

The newest date makes it the third time that operators have had understanding with NCC to rollout number portability on their networks, but some subscribers have raised fears of its impossibility, vis-a-vis, the poor service quality witnessed by subscribers since last year. In spite of their fears, the operators and the NCC are optimistic that nothing will stop the implementation of Number Portability across networks this quarter, "not even the poor state of the networks," they assured.

NCC's Renewed Efforts

Determined to enforce the implementation of number portability across networks, the NCC, in December last year, announced a new date for the implementation of number portability, after some failed attempts to implement it in the past.

Announcing the new date, Director, Public Affairs at NCC, Mr. Tony Ojobo, reiterated the commission's commitment to commence the implementation of number portability across all networks before the end of the first quarter of the year. According to him, the process

would spur competition among telecoms operators because they would not want to lose their customers to another network, since Number Portability gives subscribers the option of migrating from one network to another at will, while in search of better service quality. "Apart from competition, which will bring healthy rivalry among operators, they will also be forced to introduce value added services that will attract customers to their networks, and also retain existing subscribers," he said.

He said the NCC had a renewed agreement with telecoms operators to commence the exercise before the end of March this year.

Subscribers' Fears

The announcement of the renewed plan to introduce number portability across GSM networks was received with mixed reactions among telecoms subscribers. Some subscribers who spoke with THISDAY were worried that the implementation may aggravate the poor service quality across networks. Mr. Dele Atiba, a subscriber to Globacom and MTN, said it would have been better if the operators were given some more time to address the issue of poor service quality, before the implementation of number portability. "I have a feeling that the implementation of number portability will worsen the network situation and it is my candid advice that the NCC allows the operators to fix right, the network challenges, before embarking on number porting," Atiba said.

Mr. James Obodo, who is a subscriber to Etisalat, Airtel and Globacom, said there was need for the implementation. "See I am carrying three mobile phones from three different network operators because services are poor. But if subscribers can port their numbers from one network to another, I will have no reason of inconveniencing myself with three lines, when I can conveniently port to any network that I feel has better service quality."

Operators New Position

Allaying fears that number portability may further degenerate the condition of the networks, telecoms operators said they could manage the situation and still offer better service quality, if there were no further attacks on their facilities.

Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, told THISDAY in an interview that the operators would commence the implementation successfully, should there be no unforeseen circumstances that could hinder it.

He listed such unforeseen circumstances to include further attacks on telecoms facilities, regulatory issues and deteriorating telecoms services that could be caused by environmental factors.

"Yes we are ready to commence number portability in the next two months, our networks are ready, and all we need do is to do the test run to ascertain the state of readiness of the network, and once that is confirmed, then we are ready for rollout," Adebayo said.

According to him, "there are legal issues, commercial issues and technical issues that must be addressed, and all these are currently being looked into to enable the smooth implementation of the process." He said "once it is implemented, there will be no going back hence we must ensure that everything is in order before the commencement."

Eliminating Bottlenecks

In order to ensure hitch-free implementation exercise, and to remove complications of migrating from one network to another and as well address the issue of bill settlement among telecoms operators, the NCC, last year, published on its website, a set of rules that will enhance number porting across all networks.

The new rules exempt subscribers from paying any fee that may be charged by telecoms operators, when subscribers make request to telecoms operators, asking for number porting from one network to another.

According to the guidelines, a service provider is responsible for maintaining appropriate records to satisfy the billing and audit requirements of Mobile Number Portability (MNP). Services and traffic terminated to ported numbers on an individual recipient operator's network must be charged the same as for traffic and services terminated to non-ported numbers of the same recipient operator.

Neither recipient operators nor donor operators may make a charge to the customer for porting their number.

Addressing customer care in number porting, the document explained that customers who port their numbers from one mobile service provider to another should be treated in the same way as customers who cease service with one mobile service provider and begins service with another.

According to the document, where customers suffer disruption to their mobile service, and it is unclear in which network the problem lies, the mobile service providers would cooperate to locate and resolve the challenge.

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