Mobile users will finally be able to switch providers without needing to change phone numbers.
It was all about giving people choice, said Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim, the director general of the TRA.
“An essential element in the health of the UAE’s mobile market is the ability of consumers to choose between competing providers,” he said. “UAE mobile phone users have the right – if they wish – to retain their mobile telephone number and this is precisely the motivation behind the announcement.”
Mobile number portability has been on the TRA’s agenda for about three years but was delayed because of technical difficulties. Those have now been resolved and the change should be implemented within two months according to the TRA, with both Etisalat and du required to have the necessary technical processes in place by then.
Du’s chief executive, Osman Sultan, said he was certain the company’s two carriers would meet the deadline. Etisalat was not available for comment.
“It’s very good news. It’s good for the consumers, it should be very good for the market,” Mr Sultan said. “We don’t believe it’s a game changer, but it’s interesting and good for consumers and we’ll be committed to make it happen.”
The TRA has requested a “recipient-led” process, which means the transfer will be handled solely by the new provider. This simplifies the process for customers, removing the need to have to contact their previous provider to obtain a porting authorisation code.
“Mobile number portability will immediately increase competition in the UAE’s ICT [information, computers and technology] market, expedite the switching process and do so in a way that directly benefits the consumer,” Mr Al Ghanim said.
Total UAE mobile subscriptions as of June stood at 14.9 million, with Etisalat at 8.29 million and du with 6.65 million, according to the research company Informa Telecoms & Media.
Mr Al Ghanim highlighted the “appetite” for mobile devices. Smartphone penetration currently stands at 73.8 per cent and mid-range feature phones such as Nokia’s Asha range have a startling penetration rate of 181 per cent.
While neither Etisalat or du publish their churn rates, that is the percentage of customers that jump from one operator to another, research from the cloud computing company Dropbox suggests the churn rate for both operators in the UAE stands at 32 per cent every year.
In the competitive UK market, Vodafone reported one of the highest overall churn rates of 34.7 per cent for last year while O2 said total churn was 2.7 per cent for the same period.
About 87 per cent of subscribers in the UAE are prepaid customers, traditionally markets dominated by prepaid customers are not heavily affected by mobile number portability.
“It will have a relatively small impact in this market. However, it is still going to be a concern to the operators,” said Matthew Reed, principal analyst at Informa. “Etisalat in particular is not going to want to lose high-value customers, but it is more of an opportunity for du.”
While this is a step towards openness, analysts believe that mobile number portability would have had a greater impact had it been introduced a few years ago. There is some hope that this decision will help to overcome other regulatory hurdles, namely network sharing of the country’s fixed line networks.
At last year’s Gitex, Etisalat’s chief executive Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar referred to network-sharing as the “last hurdle” and said negotiations were in the final stages and should be implemented “soon”.