In January 2011, the mobile number portability (MNP) facility was launched in India to allow users to retain their mobile numbers when switching their operators, and to ease the overall process of porting out. The facility has been extremely useful for telecom users, particularly in situations such as the 2G licence cancellations by the Supreme Court in 2012 and during the ongoing consolidation. Around 345 million porting requests have been processed so far.
At the industry level, MNP has significantly improved the quality of service provided to subscribers. It has reinstated the old adage “consumer is king”. Operators have to either improve their service quality and delivery, customer support and grievance management, or stand to lose in the face of hyper competition. That said, one of the biggest impediments in the process has been the wrongful rejection of porting requests by operators. Upon analysis, it was found that the rejections were largely due to “unique porting code (UPC) mismatch” and “invalid/expired UPC”, which together accounted for around 40 per cent of the total porting request rejections. To address these issues, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued the draft Telecommunications Mobile Number Portability (seventh amendment) Regulations, 2017, seeking stakeholder comments. In their comments, the stakeholders raised various issues, apart from the need to amend the MNP process as proposed in the draft regulations, and suggested new mechanisms, which needed further consultation before the amendment is finalised.
The need to revamp the MNP process has become all the more relevant with the ongoing sector consolidation, driving several operators to shut shop. Sudden exits of operators such as Reliance Communications and Aircel have left millions of users high and dry. While they have opted for the MNP route, they are facing challenges in getting refunds of the unused balance (in the case of prepaid) or the security deposit (for post-paid), in addition to the issues pertaining to the generation and rejection of porting codes.
In light of this, TRAI has re-initiated the consultation on revamping the MNP process in a bid to make it more consumer-friendly and prompt. The new consultation paper invites stakeholders’ comments on sudden network shutdowns by operators, transfer of subscribers’ prepaid balance and various other issues. In January 2018, TRAI had reduced the porting fee from Rs 19 to Rs 4.
Issues with the existing process
The existing MNP process has several limitations that lead to problems such as the non-generation of UPC, improper validation of UPC, rejection of porting requests, no or inadequate communication to subscribers, and rejection of withdrawal of porting requests. In several cases, the UPC is either not generated or its generation is delayed due to technical issues in the operation support system of the donor operator. Such incidents have increased in recent times after some operators have shut down their businesses, resulting in a surge in porting requests.
Meanwhile, donor operators often try to circumvent porting of their subscribers. On the other hand, recipient operators are extremely hesitant to process requests for cancellation or withdrawal of porting.
Role of MNPSP in the proposed MNP process
In a bid to address these challenges, some stakeholders have suggested to assign the task of UPC generation and delivery of UPC to the MNP service provider (MNPSP) of the zone to which the mobile number originally belongs. It is envisaged that due to redistributed roles of the MNPSP and donor operators, the proposed process will facilitate faster porting, enabling the entire process to be completed within one to two working days, as against the existing porting period of four working days.
Refund of talktime balance to prepaid subscribers
Currently, there is no provision in the MNP regulations for the refund of the prepaid balance. The balance stands to lapse as per the regulations. However, in the past year, millions of prepaid subscribers have been forced to port out as some operators closed their 2G/GSM, CDMA services and discontinued their voice services in licensed services areas. Consequently, TRAI received several complaints regarding the refund of unspent balance of prepaid subscribers. Several stakeholders are of the view that after keeping aside a certain amount of the prepaid balance towards meeting additional administrative expenses, donor operators must transfer/refund the balance amount to the subscriber.
Ancillary issues related to the MNP process
Apart from the main porting process, the MNPSPs handle many ancillary issues associated with non-payment disconnect (NPD), the number return process, etc. The NPD request is initiated by donor operators when a subscriber has not paid the final bill before porting out. The MNPSP forwards these requests to the recipient operator, which follows the steps detailed in the MNP regulations to recover the outstanding dues for the donor operator. Since the launch of the MNP facility in India, the two designated MNPSPs have handled more than 5.26 million NPD cases (cumulative) so far.
In the existing MNP regulations, once the NPD request has been made and the subscriber makes the payment after disconnection (but before expiry of the 60-day notice period), there is no provision for reversing the process. There have been instances where subscribers have not been able to make the payments within the notice period due to genuine difficulties, but are willing to pay the entire dues to get back their mobile number. But in the existing process, a disconnected number gets returned to the number range holder. Over the past seven years, the MNPSPs have cumulatively returned more than 65.13 million mobile numbers to the original number range holder. Given that losing one’s number can have serious personal and financial implications in present times, provisions must be explored to re-activate a subscriber’s mobile number.
Further, leveraging new technologies in the MNP process can make it more efficient and effective. For instance, blockchain solutions can be explored. If a recipient operator shares its blockchain details with the donor operator and the MNPSP, it can help overcome delays in the MNP process and make the process more secure.
Today, mobile phones have become a lifeline for the citizens of the country and mobile numbers an important part of their identity. Mobile phones and numbers are being extensively used for conducting banking/non-banking transactions and availing of other online services. In this scenario, failure to port their mobile number creates difficulties for users. TRAI’s decision to relook at the existing MNP process, in order to make it more user-friendly and transparent, will go a long way in addressing user grievances and easing the porting process. This will also put pressure on operators to offer top-class services to users.