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Number portability awaits up to 10 million customers PDF Print E-mail

By Edris Kisambira

At this point in time, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) does not yet consider mobile number portability as a requirement in Uganda’s competitive mobile telephony market until the numbers go beyond 10 million.

That was the conclusion the Uganda ICT industry regulator arrived at following a feasibility study commissioned last year.

According to the regulator, Mobile Number Portability (MNP), a rather costly venture requires a big subscriber base, needs further research before it is implemented and will be carried out by a third party. 

“At this stage, number portability is not something we see as a remedy in this market,” Patrick Masambu, the executive director UCC said. “We carried out a study into this and got to the conclusion that there is a certain subscriber sum we need before we introduce number portability because of the costs involved.”

Masambu said according to the study findings, MNP would only make sense when mobile subscribers reach a total sum of 10 million. At the time of the study, in 2007, Uganda had 3 million subscribers but within a year the required number to implement MNP is almost achieved.

Over the last two years, Uganda has seen mobile telephone users jump from 3 million to close to 9 million today. The introduction of affordable handsets as well as the opening up of the sector to full competition two years ago have been the catalysts to this growth – representing a tele-density of 27 percent up from 18 percent.

Mobile number portability is a regulated facility, which enables subscribers of publicly available telephone services (including mobile services) to change their service provider whilst keeping their existing telephone numbers.

It is a consumer protection tool that if implemented will help foster consumer choice and effective competition by enabling mobile phone users to switch between providers without the costs and inconvenience of changing their telephone number.

According to Masambu, MNP might be provided by a third party operator who will treat it as a business case as opposed to it being implemented by the telecoms that operate in the market.

While incumbent players including MTN Uganda, Zain Uganda and Uganda Telecom do not mind whether MNP gets introduced in the sector because of their big subscriber numbers, new entrants Warid Telecom and Orange Uganda see things differently.

An official from Orange Uganda argued that MNP is important in the market because it gives customers the right to change a supplier. “The pattern we see is people carrying more than one phone; in some instances three, so they can try out the services of other suppliers. We believe number portability is important today and should be a requirement,” the official who preferred not to be named said.

In Uganda today, users either hold multiple handsets or SIM cards as a way of taking advantage of offers made by the five different service providers. Other proponents of MNP argue it is difficult in a commercial sense for a new operator to enter the market. 

They argue that even if a new player came on to the market with the best network and service, it is very hard to get clients on board simply because they are already locked in with the existing players.

Vendor lock-ins tie customers to a particular vendor for certain products and services, said an IT expert. The very competitive telecom market in Uganda operates on the strength of numbers; with each player touting the numbers of subscribers they have on their network as a competition tool to win new subscribers.

Those who are opposed to the introduction of MNP cite cases where it has not been so successful elsewhere but its introduction along with the entry of more players in the market could exert downward pressure on voice charges. Last year, the market experienced an average 10 percent drop in on-net call rates as telecom fought each other over prices.                                          

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