Snapshot: number portability in the Caribbean
Continuing our Snapshot series, this post examines number portability across the Caribbean region.
Number portability has been gaining considerable visibility over the last several months, as countries across the Caribbean express an intention to implement it. This post highlights the status of number portability in the region, along with some important considerations moving forward.
What is number portability?
The term “number portability” (NP) refers to the ability of subscribers to retain their numbers independent of the telecoms service providers they use. NP is usually implemented in the fixed and/or mobile/cellular markets, and general falls into two categories:
- Restricted NP – porting of numbers is limited to a particular market, e.g. between service providers in the fixed market, or between service providers in the mobile/cellular market, or
- Inter-nodal (or local) NP – porting of numbers is allowed between different markets, e.g. between fixed and mobile/cellular services.
As indicated in Can I switch networks now? ECTEL consultation on number portability, other constraints may be placed on inter-nodal portability, such as geographic or service area restrictions, or even restrictions to particular technologies. Unless prescribed in policy or statute, the regulator typically makes a determination of the conditions and scope of the portability that will be implemented.
Where has NP be implemented?
Without a doubt, there has been considerable buzz around NP, and several countries across the Caribbean have embarked upon activities that ultimately should lead to its implementation. Yet, how many countries have successfully launched a NP scheme? Table 1 gives a status update.
With regard to the countries that are overseen by the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) – Saint Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada– “Service Provider Number Portability”, which is a form of inter-nodal portability, will be implemented. Under that regime, subscribers will be able to transfer their numbers between telcos, but would not be allowed to port those numbers between different services carried by the same provider.
Mobile NP or inter-nodal NP?
In most regulatory regimes, the priority, at the very least, is usually to implement mobile NP, since frequently it is the mobile/cellular market that has multiple players, and could benefit from such an initiative. Frequently, fixed telephony services is still be provided by the incumbent telco only, as there is little, if any, competition in that market.
However, in countries where there is also competition in the fixed telephony market, the regulator might be more inclined to support intermodal NP between fixed and mobile/cellular markets, consistent with the decision made by ECTEL, and has been implemented in the Cayman Islands and Dominican Republic. In doing so, the competition between service providers would be enhanced, but more importantly, customers could feel less hampered in switching between service providers.
Table 1 above highlights the fact that Caribbean countries, although they might appreciate the importance for NP, and have made provision for it in their legislation, they might not yet be tackling the issue with the alacrity necessary for successful realisation in the short term. Many are yet to finalise a framework, while others have not yet begun the implementation process, which many suggest could take a minimum of 18 months.
The malaise around this issue could be attributed to a number of factors, but perhaps chiefly, the possible view that competition has not suffered significantly due to the absence of NP. In the majority of countries across the region, mobile/cellular penetration is well over 100 subscriptions per 100 of the population (Figure 1), which means that a significant portion of the population subscribes to more than one mobile/cellular providers.
Situations where mobile/cellular penetration rates are over 100% tend to be attributed, almost exclusively, to high off-network calling rates, which often forces customers to subscribe to the more than one networks in order to avoid the cross network charges. However, a growing trend across the region is that calling rates, especially cross-network rates, are dropping considerably, and may not longer be as significant a reason for overly high penetration rates.
However, another important contributor to overly high mobile/cellular penetration rates, does not get much attention, occurs when customers are unable to transfer their current telephone or mobile/cellular numbers to other providers. Without a doubt, telephone numbers, especially mobile/cellular numbers, have evolved to become personal identifiers of the subscribers to which they have been assigned. Hence although customers might be dissatisfied with the service being offered by a particular provider, they may opt to remain if they are unable to transfer their telephone numbers to a more desired provider (see Are LIME Jamaica’s mobile rates reductions too little too late?). However, a well-implemented NP scheme could successfully address this issue.
Finally, although all stakeholders, especially the telecoms sectors as a whole, benefit when NP is established it is also important to recognise some of the challenges exist, primarily on the provider side, where the onus can be on them to successfully implement NP. Across the region, most countries want the telcos to finance the systems necessary for NP, and also require them to co-operate and collaborate with their fellow service providers to facilitate execution.
However, frequently, there are providers that benefit from not having NP, and may be more inclined to delay the process. Hence in the absence of stronger motivation from policy makers and regulators to ensure NP is established in a timely manner, NP may remain one of these unfulfilled elements in fostering true competition in telecoms.
Image credit: hddod, flickr