By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas’ new mobile operator yesterday said there would be “big questions” if the sector failed to meet the latest deadline for number portability’s launch.
Damian Blackburn, Aliv’s top executive, told Tribune Business that the new entrant would “absolutely hit” the April 25, 2017, date set by the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) for number portability.
Mr Blackburn said its launch was vital for Aliv to fully penetrate two of the Bahamian mobile market’s three customer segments, including corporate and post-paid subscribers, who want to keep their existing number when switching provider from the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC).
He added that mobile number portability’s introduction had already taken longer than the six-months post-license award condition stipulated during the bidding process won by Aliv’s controlling shareholder, BISX-listed Cable Bahamas.
“We’re pleased with where we’ve got to, but on number portability we absolutely are going to hit April 25, and we hope BTC hits April 25 as well,” Mr Blackburn told Tribune Business.
“We are doing everything possible in here to make sure that happens. It’s coming down to the opening up of this market, which we obviously want, and which we were promised would happen in the [license] auction process.
“It was one of the conditions that number portability would be opened up within six months of the license’s issue,” Mr Blackburn added. “It’s taken a bit longer, but it’s technically complex.
“There’s got to be big questions if it takes longer than this date [April 25].”
Mobile number portability was initially supposed to launch on February 14 this year, but URCA postponed the date twice, blasting both Aliv and BTC for their alleged failure “to adequately and effectively plan and prepare” for this.
The biggest losers to-date from the two-month number portability delay are the Bahamas’ 320,000-plus mobile subscribers, as it impedes their ability to have full freedom of choice over their provider.
Mobile number portability will allow customers of BTC and Aliv to keep their existing numbers when switching between providers.
This, in turn, is vital to facilitating competition and consumer choice for Bahamians, especially businessmen wanting to retain their existing number for commercial purposes and ease of contact.
Any further number portability delays will also impede Aliv’s ability to seize greater market share from BTC, and meet its financial projections and targets.
The new operator says it has so far gained more than 50,000 subscribers, but they have largely come from just one market segment - the estimated 180,000 ‘innovators’ or ‘early adopters’ willing to switch to Aliv even though they cannot retain their current BTC number.
Mr Blackburn yesterday estimated there were around 100,000 existing mobile users who will not consider switching to Aliv unless number portability, and the ability to retain their existing cell number, is in place.
The absence of number portability may also complicate Aliv’s efforts to penetrate the 50,000 post-paid subscriber market, many of whom are businessmen and corporate executives.
BTC’s chief executive, Leon Williams, was this week far more circumspect about whether the incumbent operator will meet the April 25 deadline, telling other media that the incumbent operator will “try its hardest” to do so.
BTC has little incentive to move rapidly on facilitating number portability unless prodded to do so by URCA, given that in the initial stages it is likely that a significant chunk of its subscriber base may defect to the new ‘upstart’, Aliv.
Barry Williams, Aliv’s chief financial officer, told Tribune Business that the higher-yielding corporate market was “certainly more prone to number portability” than its pre-paid counterpart.
“Are we ready now? Yes,” Mr Williams said of Aliv’s number portability readiness. “We fully expect, and are doing everything necessary on our side, to hit the ground running.
“It is important. There’s no doubt about that. Certainly, it’s in everyone’s interests to ensure it happens as quickly as possible for many reasons. We’re doing our part.”
Mr Williams explained that when fixed-line number portability between BTC and Cable Bahamas was introduced in 2011-2012, it was set-up to allow for an eventual ‘upscaling’ and accommodation of mobile number portability on the same system.
“To get the mobile number portability aspect of it done, the business rules have to be set,” he said. “There has to be actual interconnection between BTC and Aliv so that ports are done in a timely manner.
“All these things have to be worked out and tested between ourselves and BTC. That’s what’s happening now.”