Everywhere you go, always take your number with you
Geographic number portability has been great for stimulating competition in SA's telecoms space, says Mitchell Barker, CEO of WhichVoIP.co.za.
One of the first things new business owners do when they set up shop is to have telephones installed. Then they have business cards printed with their company's name, and - crucially - contact number/s on it. In many cases, that number becomes an intrinsic part of a business's identity as it appears in print ads, Web pages and any sort of correspondence the company sends out to clients.
In the past, when companies relocated their operations to different premises, or if they wanted to switch to alternative telecoms - such as voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) - they were unable to keep the same numbers. Then, in April 2010, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) announced the implementation of geographic number portability (GNP), also known as fixed-line number portability, in South Africa.
"GNP allows companies and consumers to port their existing fixed-line number or number range when they move, or when they want to switch to a different provider," says Mitchell Barker, CEO of WhichVoIP.co.za, South Africa's leading directory of credible voice, data and connectivity solutions providers. "At first it allowed only for numbers to be ported in blocks of 1 000 or 10 000, which excluded small businesses and consumers, but shortly after, it became possible for smaller companies and individuals to port fewer and even individual numbers."
Barker says apart from the convenience of allowing companies and consumers to retain the same numbers that they have had for years, even after they move premises or switch between operators, it has been great for stimulating competition in South Africa's telecoms space as well.
"For a long time, Telkom was the only fixed-line operator in the country, so consumers were held hostage by its pricing and infrastructure," Barker says. "Over the past few years, the telecoms landscape in South Africa has seen a tremendous growth with many new operators joining the field. First, Telkom got competition in the fixed landline sphere when secondary operator Neotel started operating nationally. Then there was an influx of bandwidth into the country, thanks to the new undersea cables, which has driven Internet prices down. This has caused a spike in alternative telecoms providers, such as those offering VOIP."
Barker explains there are myriad reasons why GNP is a good move. "It gives companies and consumers freedom of choice and can potentially save them money, since they can now switch to the most affordable operator," he explains. "They can even port their Telkom landline numbers to VOIP, which means they will not have to pay for line rental anymore, and it will give them more flexibility in the form of mobility, as the number will not be location-bound anymore. The process is also speedy, because all of your infrastructure - data and voice - may be combined into one network."
He adds that porting can be done between VOIP providers as well, but that this is not as common. "Customers should be able to move VOIP providers and retain their number, and the process should be as simple as the standard telecoms process. However, VOIP number portability is not as straightforward. Geographical numbers and GSM numbers can be ported between VOIP providers, but 087 numbers can't. However, if there are two providers that are interconnected, VOIP provider numbers can be forwarded between them at a transit fee per call."
Local porting statistics that were published by the www.numberportability.co.za shows that South Africans have embraced GNP since it was implemented in April 2010. According to the site, from 26 April 2010, until the end of April 2014, 282 280 geographic numbers have been successfully ported, at an average of approximately 7 057 per month. The site points out that the figure includes the bulk ports that were done in phase one of GNP from 18 May 2009, but included once the system was implemented 11 months later.
"These figures indicate just how much South African consumers were in need of various options that allowed them to take charge of their telecoms decisions," Barker concludes.