There are a number of steps that have been taken by the government to increase competitiveness in the mobile telephone market, one of them being the adoption of number portability. Number portability allows a mobile phone subscriber to move from one network to the next without having to change numbers.
But number portability has not been successful as Safaricom is still controlling the mobile telephone industry at about 80% in 2013 up from below 70% in 2011. A major challenge with mobile number portability is the requirement for one to change from one network to the other by going through an elaborate process. For example, to move from one network to another and as outlined by Safaricom, one is required to:
- Visit a retail shop of the network you intend to move to
- Fill out a Number Porting Request Form and submit copies of the identification documents specified in the form
- Sign the Number Porting Request Form as a declaration that you understand and consent to the porting
- Pay a fee of Ksh200 inclusive of VAT. This is the payment prescribed by CCK.
- Send an SMS requesting to port to short-code number 1501.
Other than the difficult procedure requiring one to physically visit a retail shop, pay portability fee of Kshs 200, and wait for at least two working days before one can successfully port, mobile number portability also requires one to be with one operator for at least 60 calender days before moving again. These challenges have not only forced subscribers to remain in their default networks but have also made them forget the whole mobile number portability programme. Is there anyone porting anymore?
A solution that would be beneficial to subscribers is the adoption of Universal SIM cards. In this article, Universal SIM cards is used in the context of a SIM card that can be registered to any network of choice simply by selecting network operator desired from the handset. Most handsets, if not all, allow users to manually search for mobile operators in an area and register to one of the available operators. However, if you have Safaricom’s SIM card for instance, attempts to register to the other available operators will be rejected by the SIM card. Universal SIM cards on the other hand would allow registration to any GSM network provider as long as the network can be found by a simple search.
Advantages of Universal SIM cards
To illustrate, imagine you had a Universal SIM card. This SIM card can accept credit from any of the mobile service providers simultaneously so you decide to load it with airtime from Safaricom, Airtel, Yu, and Orange. To make a call, you realize that it is cheaper to make calls using Orange so you go to your Android Phone’s settings, select More Settings, then Mobile Networks, and lastly Network Operators. You search for available Operators and Choose GSM Telkom etc. At that time, your SIM card will be registered in GSM Telkom and technically you become an Orange customer…allowing you make calls on Orange network. To use Airtel Network, you won’t need to undergo mobile number portability process but you simply select Airtel by repeating the steps as required by your handset.
Take a second case where you travel a lot (or even once in a while). You start your journey on Airtel Network but when you reach your destination you find that Airtel’s network is not available in that area. If you had a Universal SIM card, you would follow the same procedure outlined above and use an alternative network e.g. Yu network for your communication needs without having to change SIM cards hence you won’t go “mteja hapatikani” on your main line.
The final scenario would be the need to use the best service/product offering from each of the four mobile service providers. For example data on Safaricom in terms of speed and reliability could be the best in the market. Orange could be offering the best calling rates, Airtel could be best in message services and Yu could set for emergency. Having loaded your line with credit from each of the service providers, you decide to use voice services on Orange network, access data on Safaricom, and send text messages on Airtel etc.
Lastly, Universal SIM cards will eliminate the need to have multiple SIM cards, buy duo-SIM phones (Tri-SIM phones are gaining popularity by the way), and/or have several handsets for the various service providers. If anyone will have multiple phones, it won’t be because the network operators required them to.
As illustrated above, Universal SIM cards stand a chance to offer us (subscribers) the best choices in terms of enjoying quality network services. Since Universal SIM cards would enable us to freely and within seconds move from one network to the next, mobile service providers would be forced to constantly offer the best services in terms of cost, quality, reliability, network coverage, customer care, and product diversity.
Disadvantages of current set up
Although we have number portability, the difficulties associated with number portability means we are still, to a large extent, in the era preceding mobile number portability. When it comes to mobile phone services, we are experiencing dissatisfaction that a laptop user would experience if access to Wi-Fi required one to install specific wireless card provided by the Wi-Fi provider. But since wireless cards in our laptops allow us to access any Wi-Fi services, one only needs to buy (if it’s not free Wi-Fi) the required access credentials in order to enjoy the services of the Wi-Fi provider in question.
The second disadvantage we are faced with could be likened to a customer shopping in supermarkets in town. There is this neighbor who shops for specific items from specific supermarkets. Imagine if we were technically, legally or otherwise barred from moving from one supermarket to the next at least for sixty days after becoming a customer of a particular supermarket. That’s exactly what current mobile phone environment has done to us as we can’t move from one provider to the next at will.
Technical consideration of Universal SIM cards
An immediate objection to Universal SIM cards would be technical viability. Are Universal SIM cards technically possible? The answer is yes. In Europe, there are companies already offering Universal SIM card services. Take SimCardGlobal.com that has this to say about its Universal SIM cards:
SimCardGlobal.com is offering Atlas +44Universal SIM Card with USA and UK numbers on the same SIM card and service in almost 200 countries around the world, excellent call quality and very low rates. It is truly a “Universal Card”! Once you make your first call with Atlas +44 Universal SIM Card, your SIM card is active as long as you keep your service. The card has many features including voicemail retrieval, web initiated calls, free incoming messages (SMS) and automatic air time credit reloads.
Another Universal SIM card provider is TravelSIM, an Australian based Universal SIM card service provider that offers roaming services to over 190 countries around the world.
.Logistics and Operations of Universal SIM Cards
If Kenya is to opt for Universal SIM Cards, she’ll need to de-link Mobile Service Providers from SIM cards and register an independent SIM card company whose duty would be to provide Universal SIM cards. The company will be mandated to source for Universal SIM cards, provide and manage SIM card numbers, register subscribers, and sell to end user every single SIM card in the country. The entity will ensure that the registration database is managed accordingly. Network Operators will only need to concentrate on managing communication (maintain communication logs) in their databases.
Do you agree with me that we need Universal SIM cards instead of being tied to a particular network for at least sixty days? What could be the major challenges, other than opposition by major service providers, that would prevent Universal SIM cards from seeing the light of day? Personally I would want us to strongly advocate for the adoption of Universal SIM cards.