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Number portability regulations to turbo-charge telecoms sector

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 18 Jan 2022

The implementation of the non-geographic number portability regulations, published by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), will unlock innovation and stimulate healthy competition in SA’s telecommunications market.

This is according to telecoms industry pundits who have welcomed ICASA’s long-overdue move to publish the number portability regulations in the Government Gazette in December.

The telecoms regulator announced the new regulations will come into force on 7 March 2022.

The legislation allows local businesses, non-governmental organisations and call centres that rely on non-geographic numbers and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) numbers starting with 087, 0800, 0860 or 0861, to port or transfer their number to another service provider, without having to change their phone number.

Section 4(2) of the South African Number Portability Regulations of 2018 provides for the portability of the non-geographic numbers in the 080, 086 and 087 national destinations.

However, the regulation was not in force until such time that the authority issues an official declaration and announcement for their implementation. According to ICASA, the Ordering Specification System had been pending adjustment to allow a number of technical changes that were introduced by the regulations.

This issue had been a bone of contention in the telecoms industry since 2006, when mobile number portability (MNP) was launched by ICASA, allowing customers to port their mobile number between cellular networks Vodacom, Cell C, MTN and Telkom.

While consumers using mobile numbers were able to port, businesses were essentially locked into their original service provider once a number was allocated, resulting in non-geographic toll-free, shared-cost, premium rate and VOIP services being negatively impacted.

The telecoms sector has lauded the finalising of the regulations, with ICASA providing the technical details of how number portability will actually work in its amendments to the Ordering System Specification.

“South Africa’s telecoms sector is off to a promising start in 2022 with the finalisation of the number portability framework and the provision of a firm commencement date,” says Dominic Cull, regulatory advisor for the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA).

“The full implementation of number portability will soon see greater competition in providing telecoms services when it comes to non-geographic phone numbers.”

According to Cull, the next two months will be an opportunity for the telecoms body to investigate deals and determine if organisations are getting the best service and value from their incumbent provider.

Dominic Cull, regulatory advisor for the Internet Service Providers’ Association.
Dominic Cull, regulatory advisor for the Internet Service Providers’ Association.

Vital missing link

Since the introduction of MNP in 2006, the service has boosted competition within the country’s telecoms sector, and has been hugely successful, with millions of consumers choosing to change their mobile network operator, notes ISPA.

However, it remained impossible for businesses to port their non-geographic phone numbers to other service providers.

In 2019, ISPA expressed concerns, accusing ICASA of dragging its feet on the introduction of the regulations.

“Consumers have received no word from ICASA on why, 13 years after the launch of mobile number portability in 2006, we still cannot port non-geographic numbers used for toll-free, shared-cost, premium rate and general voice services,” Cull stated at the time.

“ISPA members receive daily requests from consumers looking to port non-geographic numbers but are not able to accommodate these requests due to the delay in implementing the regulations. It looks like this delay could continue for years, to the ongoing prejudice of consumers.”

Now spoilt for choice

Riaan Pietersen, GM of VOIP communications provider Wanatel, comments that the regulations, although long overdue, will help ensure healthy competition in the local telecoms market, with a focus on consumer standards and market demand.

“I think we will see an initial burst of activity where corporates make a shift and thereafter, the market will normalise. We expect this will raise the standard of service, flexibility and innovative alternatives for large corporates that, until now, have been unable to reap the full benefits of VOIP across their business.”

Local service providers offering VOIP services include Vox Telecom, Internet Solutions, Liquid Telecom, MTN, Vodacom Business and Euphoria Telecom.

Many of the non-geographic numbers, adds Pietersen, are easy for consumers to recall (for example, Lifeline’s 0861 322 322 or CrimeStop’s 0860 010 111), and are therefore especially valuable, because many public and private organisations have invested significant resources in promoting them over many years.

Greg de Chasteauneuf, CTO of telecoms service provider Saicom, points out that the new regulations will also spur innovation in the sector.

“For too long, our country has suffered from the lack of a competitive market. For the first time in years, customers that have non-geographic numbers core to their day-to-day business will have the choice to move away from their service provider and no longer feel the impact of large-scale network outages when the lines of one company are down.

“Companies that require more innovative call centre solutions can look forward to engaging with service providers who are innovative, agile and built to deliver greater customisability to meet their needs. Through the proclamation of this legislation, customers can look forward to benefiting from reduced prices and better service,” asserts Chasteauneuf.