Playing the long game to lure phone users

Portability of mobile phone numbers is long overdue in the UAE, but the providers must adjust to the new, more competitive environment that will evolve here.

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When consumers in the UAE gained the ability to retain their mobile phone numbers when switching carriers, a process known as "porting", it was at the behest of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to encourage competition and improve services rather than something that was initiated by Etisalat or du.

This move was long overdue. By the time number portability was introduced on December 30 last year, consumers here caught up with an option enjoyed by every other GCC nation and most developed countries. Until then, changing mobile-services providers in the UAE had meant changing numbers – with all the inconvenience and disruption that entails – and the end result was a powerful disincentive that encouraged corporate complacency rather than genuine competition.

Since then, more than 60,000 applications have been made, but as The National has reported, only 23,000 of these have been processed. For phone users from other developed nations, who can port their phone numbers within an hour, this must seem baffling. The delays have been attributed to factors ranging from teething problems to the requirement that all outstanding debts to the former carrier have to be settled beforehand. The end result is a delay that acts as a further disincentive to those tempted to switch.

Few companies welcome greater competition because the winners are far more likely to be consumers rather than corporate profitability, but that is to miss the bigger picture – and the evolving nature of modern telecommunications markets. In the future, the default position will be that customers vacillate between carriers, searching for the best deal with the result that they will flip backwards and forwards between the major players.

For carriers to succeed in this environment, they will have no option but to play the long game, keeping themselves nimble and efficient – with prices and services to match – so that although customers might be tempted to leave for a competitor, they can eventually be lured back. Delaying a customer’s ability to switch will make them far less amenable to ever moving back in the future, damaging the company’s brand rather than preserving the customer base.

All this is part of the evolution and improvement in the UAE telecoms sector, from which ultimately customers and corporate efficiency stand to benefit.