Cover Story

Porting road to nowhere

Mobile number portability was seen by many as an elixir to the high cost of cellular telephony in South Africa. Unfortunately, the reality has proved very different.
1 May 2007
Mark Taylor, Nashua Mobile

Like the arrival of a second national fixed lined operator, the advent of mobile number portability (MNP) was generally expected to reduce the cost of telephony and improve choice for the average consumer. But that hasn`t happened. While the hope still exists that the increased competition will make a difference, the signs are not promising in the short term. Estimates vary but it is generally believed that 60 000 users ported in the four months after MNP became available locally.

However, this figure could not be confirmed by Clive Fagan, GM of the Number Portability Company (NPC), an organisation jointly owned by the three cellular networks and which operates as a type of automated clearing bureau of cellular numbers.

“I can let you see a list of all the ports that have taken place. There`s also a website ( where you check a number to see if it`s been ported,” he says.

Fagan says he`s under strict instructions not to divulge summary reports or supply the list of ported numbers electronically for data analysis. All he could do was allow perusal of the leaver arch file listing the numbers successfully ported thus far. He referred Brainstorm  to the three network operators.

The MNP process

The process of porting your number to another service provider and network depends upon your starting point.
Apply to new network (supply cell number)
Get ported
Give notice to current network
Wait 30 days
Apply to new network (supply cell number, account number and ID number)
Credit vetting process
Identity verification
Get ported
Post-paid (Express)
Convert to pre-paid
Apply to new network (supply cell number, account number and ID number)
Credit vetting process
Identity verification
Get ported

John Kondowe, project manager at MTN, wouldn`t divulge the information during the interview, saying the company was in a closed period. An e-mail response from Dot Field, chief communications officer at Vodacom, states that the company “issues financial and subscriber figures on a quarterly basis, and provided an update to the market in January 2007, with recording up to 31 December 2006, where it clearly states that the number of customers that joined the network together with customers that left the network as a result of MNP totalled about 20 000.

“This is less than the number of new connections which Vodacom usually activates in any one day. As far as contract customers are concerned, Vodacom has gained twice as many as it has lost through number portability. As far as pre-paid customers are concerned, it has lost more than it has gained.”

Pamella Mongoato Radebe, media relations manager at Cell C, was far more forthcoming. Her e-mail response was admirably succinct: “[Up to] 28 February, 41 152 numbers had been successfully ported between all the mobile operators. Of these, 36.38 percent had ported into Cell C and Virgin Mobile, while 12 percent ported out of Cell C into other networks.”

Slow growth

In response to a question about the month-on-month growth in porting requests, NPC`s Fagan inadvertently let slip that demand for number portability had been relatively flat since mid-November, with 12 000 to 15 000 numbers successfully ported per month (the interview took place in mid-March). This is consistent with Cell C`s figures and means that by the time you read this, fewer than 100 000 mobile subscribers will have ported.

Considering that Richard Hurst, analyst at BMI-TechKnowledge (BMI-T), reckons the current cellular installed base in South Africa is approaching 38 million, that`s but a drop in the ocean – or 0.0026 percent if you want to split hairs. This sluggish uptake is despite advertising by the three networks – and Virgin Mobile – pointing out how easy porting one`s number is.

If one of my customers says he's leaving today and he's got six month's left [on his contract], I'm going to debit his account for the last six months' subscription fees.
Mark Taylor, Nashua Mobile
Among the reasons for this apparent apathy appears to be the process itself, which is well illustrated by user reaction to a recent story on ITWeb  entitled “Users to blame for failed ports”. The story quoted networks and service providers in denial, pointing the finger at consumers. Some of those consumers reacted by posting comments on the website. One person, calling himself Stan, refers: “You can port,” he wrote. “But we [network operators and service providers] want two pounds of flesh, your first-born and first dibs on your soul. You will need the patience of a saint and the determination of a junkie in need of a fix.”

Barry Leo was more forgiving, but indicated that confusion still surrounds the whole process. In a later interview, he reported that the outlet he visited told him it was possible to change networks but not service providers. “I could port the network but I wasn`t able to port the service provider,” he says.

Consumer Joe, who also chose to remain anonymous, reported success at porting, but noted that the experience was, and is still, “a pain in the neck”. He ported from Vodacom to MTN, it took about three weeks to process, and he had numerous problems accessing MTN`s customer service facilities from his 082 number.

Frustration abounds

It is instructive as an illustration of the frustration felt by consumers, but as Aristotle said, one swallow does not a summer make, neither does one fine day – or, in this case, one website. also provides considerable insight: a search for the acronym “MNP” yielded 121 results, of which only seven were compliments.

And yet all the operators maintain that porting is a simple process.

Says Nicholas Maweni, head of corporate affairs at Virgin Mobile: “Let`s say you`re dealing with a prepaid number; all they need to do is phone our contact centre to make the arrangements for porting.”

The Vodacom response echoes this: “The MNP processes are designed for customers to make moving from one network to another as easy and straightforward as possible.”

Prepaid customers appear to have no problems with the process, which, for them, involves merely contacting the network or service provider they want to move to and supplying their mobile number. That`s it, according to NCP`s Fagan. From there the recipient network will work with the donor network through a series of automated messages processed by the NPC.

Unfortunately for the supposed crème-de-la-crème, post-paid or contract customers, it`s not quite that simple.

MTN`s Kondowe explains that post-paid customers need to first settle outstanding obligations with their existing network and service providers. And even if the contract has run out and they are now being billed on a month-to-month basis, they will also likely have to give notice to the existing service provider.

And as Dennis Magaya, head of customer applications and services at Cell C, noted, only then is it feasible to make an application to the new network and go through the sometimes extensive credit-vetting and identity checks normally associated with opening a new account.

True value of MNP

What's in it for service providers and why should consumers care about number portability?
The South African telecoms regulatory framework is incredibly complex, more so than in any other emerging economy. This creates the perfect environment in which unfounded rumours can breed and spread. One doing the rounds lately holds that there is no business reason for service providers to target customers for porting.
Autopage Cellular's Stephen Blewett is unequivocal. "If you come to me and say I want to port from VSP (Vodacom Service Provider) to Autopage and MTN, I'm going to make it worth your while for two reasons: one, the history you already have with Vodacom; two, is the RPU (revenue per user) you represent," he says.
According to Blewett, the market is currently saturated to the point that service providers celebrate new customers that bring in as little as R100 a month.
"Number portability opens up access to high RPU customers. Anyone spending over R350 a month is considered high at RPU at the moment. So, yes, there is a definite necessity to woo those customers."

Low awareness

Mark Taylor, MD of Nashua Mobile, says the biggest problem is the first part and that customers are not always aware of their contractual obligations under the existing contract.

“If one of my customers says he`s leaving today and he`s got six months left [on his contract], I`m going to debit his account for the last six months` subscription fees,” he stresses.

And there is still more complexity added by ignorant sales people and well-meaning but inadequately trained call centre staff.

As Stephen Blewett, MD of Autopage Cellular, explains, it is possible to use the MNP regulations to change your service provider without necessarily changing your network.

But while Cell C and MTN opted to use the mechanisms put in place by the regulator Icasa in order to accomplish this, Vodacom has not. It processes such requests internally, which results in a further step: Vodacom customers wishing to change service providers must call Vodacom to “flag their number for porting”.

A lack of clarity around this has resulted in more than one consumer being told that this needs to be done for all ports.

“Where a customer wishes to port from one Vodacom service provider to another... [he] should first approach the provider he wants to move away from to have the Vodacom number flagged for porting,” Blewett explains.

One useful piece of knowledge that was gained while researching this article is that it is easier to switch from post-paid to pre-paid than it is for a contract customer to port. What is more, this can be done without giving the 30 days` notice to cancel the contract. Thereafter, the porting process should be quite simple – in theory, at least.

No clarity

The one aspect of mobile number portability that makes little sense and on which no clarity could be found was why consumers have to go to great lengths to port their numbers. What possible benefits could there be? Considering all the cellular packages and rates offered by the three cellular networks, there seems to be very little to choose between them at present. Not much choice there, really. However, this may change as the market gets closer to saturation point, when the only way the networks will be able to continue growing is by poaching one another`s customers.

That`s the good news. The bad news is that BMI-T`s Hurst reckons this may take another four years to come about. He forecasts that total market saturation will be reached in South Africa by 2011.