India: Why mobile number portability doesn’t matter

We are launching. It’s delayed. We are launching. It’s delayed. Oops, we are launching. Finally mobile phone number portability (MNP) is here. Yay. The best thing since cellphone. Well not really. Mobile number portability launch had many false starts. Most of the times the telcos weren’t prepared for it. Read as: We are afraid of losing our customers. Here’s a good news to telcos. You don’t have to worry about customers leaving your crappy service, the other services are equally crappier.

Idea Cellular jumped on the MNP portability first with its “No Idea. Get IDEA” campaign. Like all IDEA advertisements this one did make a mark. But would Idea’s service be any different from Airtel’s? No Idea. On paper, all the prepaid service offerings are the same. Some went gung ho with their SMS plans and some went overboard with their long distance call rate cuts. In the end, it might cost the same irrespective of what carrier you choose. If there are differentiators then it could be customer service and connectivity. Customer service is a complex subject which can be summarized in a single word – poor. That leaves us with connectivity.

Connectivity depends on the area you live in or roam to. If Airtel has more towers in South India and you live in North India then Airtel wouldn’t be your choice. Same is the case with other operators. Telcos have hived off their telecom tower infrastructure and are trying to leverage the existing infrastructure of competitors. For a telecom tower to break even or to stay operational it needs three occupants. If Reliance lays out a tower it makes economic sense to rent it out to Idea and Aircel. Spotting this opportunity Reliance and Airtel made good business case out of it. BSNL too tried to follow that model. With that kind of model, connectivity has become a level playing field.

Is there anything which differentiates the telcos from their offerings? I can’t find any. It is good to have the flexibility of having to keep your number when you move to another operator. If you move to another operator, that is. Most post paid connections and some prepaid connections are potential targets. That doesn’t make much of a populace. If we add the availability of cheap dual SIM phones, disconnecting a number or going through the grind of using mobile number portability doesn’t make any sense.

The odds are stacked heavily against mobile number portability.