Tuesday January 29 2013

Kenya's Mobile Number Portability on its deathbed

By Agencies

About two years ago, Henry Wandera, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya, was excited when Kenya launched a service allowing mobile phone subscribers to switch from one service provider to another.

The service named Mobile Number Portability (MNP) started by Communication Commission of Kenya (CCK) gave Wandera hope of getting the best and affordable services from the telecom he wanted."I knew that I could move from one subscriber to another at a small fee, without losing my phone number. I thought it was the best thing to happen to mobile phone subscribers in Kenya," he said on Saturday. When the service was introduced, recalled Wandera, many Kenyans had multiple SIM cards, which they were using interchangeably in search of affordable charges from various telecoms. "Then, it was certain that MNP was the answer to multiple SIM card ownership and the inconvenience of changing them on mobile phone," said the primary school teacher.

Wandera was among thousands of Kenyans who embraced the service when it was launched in March 2011 in the East African nation. "The service cost 2.3 U.S. dollars. I was tired with my mobile phone service provider since his charges were higher. I switched to another who I felt was favorable," he said.However, immediately after the switch, it dawned on Wandera that things were not going to be smooth. To begin with, it took three days before his new line was activated."When it was activated, I realized the line was not working properly. People calling me would not go through and sometimes my calls were dropped. I also experienced difficulties in sending and receiving messages," he said.

Wandera's woes and other Kenyans who ported during that time did not end there. They also could not access mobile money services. "Things were difficult. A service that had been touted as the most innovative and exciting came with several inconveniences making those who had ported to rue the move," recounted Wandera. Some two weeks after porting, the teacher went back to his initial mobile phone service provider. "I also bought a new mobile phone and a SIM card for the telecom I had ported to so that I can enjoy the company's services without disruptions," he said.

Now, about two years down the line, MNP, which was started to bolster competition in the mobile phone sector in the East African nation, is on its deathbed. Kenyans uptake of the service has remained low, thanks to various challenges associated with MNP. And majority of subscribers still own multiple SIM cards, a habit that MNP was meant to cure. New data from CCK revealed a sad fact; MNP has failed miserably in the East African nation.

Interestingly, the service has registered success in other African nations that include South Africa, Egypt and Ghana, where over 600,000 people have ported. In the period July to September last year, a paltry 217 people ported, according to CCK. This was about a third of people who ported in the period April to June same year."The performance of Mobile Number Portability service has continued to decline since 2011. During the period under review, a total of 217 in-ports were carried out down from 678 during the previous quarter, representing a decline of 68.0 percent," said CCK in the report released this week.

Interestingly, between January and March last year, 6,646 Kenyans ported. This was an increase of 176.1 percent from the period October to December, 2011, where 2,407 subscribers ported. And in the period April to June, 2011, when the service was started, 36,224 Kenyans ported. Kenya over 30.4 million mobile phone subscribers. CCK blames the dwindling fortunes of MNP, a service that it spent fortunes to popularize hoping that it will increase competition in the sector, to long porting duration and prevalent use of multiple SIM cards. "The low uptake of MNP service could be attributed to reduced tariff differentials among operators, long duration experienced by porting subscribers, prevalent use of multiple SIM cards as well as consumer preferences and choice," said the regulator.

Why would Kenyans cling on to multiple SIM cards despite the porting service? "A SIM card costs 0.11 dollars to acquire and to port one is charged 20 times more that amount. It does not make sense to port. That is why many subscribers have shunned porting services," explained Sylvia Ndura, who added she has never bothered about porting since the service was started. Entrant of multiple SIM card mobile phones in the Kenyan market also exacerbated matters for MNP. In the past year, leading telephone manufacturers that include Samsung, LG, Nokia and Tecno have introduced into the Kenyan market multiple SIM card phones.

The mobile phones, some which have four SIM cards costs as low as 35 dollars. They have thus enabled Kenyans enjoy services of various mobile phone providers. "A multiple phone SIM card is much better than MNP. This is because you will enjoy various services offered by telecoms, including mobile money, which you cannot when you port," said Ndura. However, analysts note that telecoms in the East African nation may have also frustrated the success of the service. At the launch of the service, mobile operators accused each other of hampering smooth migration of subscribers from one network to another.Higher blame was directed at Safaricom, the dominant telecom in Kenya with a market share of 63 percent. Porting subscribers could not access the telecom's mobile money transfer service M-Pesa, which is most popular in Kenya. Kenya was among 63 nations that had embraced the service globally.