By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Bahamas' second mobile provider yesterday predicted it will complete its nationwide roll-out "well ahead" of target, having attracted 13,000 subscriber 'ports' at an "accelerating pace".
Damian Blackburn, Aliv's chief officer, told Tribune Business that it had attracted 9,000 'ports' - customers electing to keep their existing number when switching from the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) over the past three months. This compared to the 4,000 'ports' gained in the three months to July 20 this year, meaning that Aliv was now gaining such subscribers at a rate of 3,000 per month as opposed to 1,300 following number portability's April launch.
Updating Tribune Business with new figures, following this newspaper's article yesterday, Mr Blackburn added that he was unable to speak for the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA), the sector regulator, on whether Aliv had met its network roll-out and quality milestones.
Emphasising that the mobile operator "respects" the process, the Aliv chief officer nevertheless said it expected to begin providing commercial services to Andros and Exuma "within the next couple of weeks".
He told Tribune Business that it aimed to connect "as many islands as possible" to its network before Christmas 2017, and was on pace to finish its nationwide roll-out in early 2018 - ahead of URCA's mid-year target.
"We're actually now at 13,000 ports," Mr Blackburn confirmed. "Some 13,000 customers have switched their network and provider, and proceeded to Aliv. We certainly want to make things easier for them to port their numbers, so we have this week launched an Aliv Concierge Service."
This will see Aliv representatives visit potential new customers at their homes and work locations, and assisting them with the 'porting process', in an effort to "make it a seamless experience in your own environment".
"It's very different to what anyone has done before," Mr Blackburn added. "The Aliv experience is very different; 'Believe in the best'. This is believe in the best service."
The Concerige Service launch will be backed by a new marketing drive, featuring Aliv-branded Suzuki Swifts, as the Bahamas' new mobile entrants seeks to gain competitive advantage by offering a more personalised service.
Number portability is vital to fostering competition in Bahamian mobile communications, as it allows customers - business and individuals - to keep their existing numbers when switching between providers. With barriers to such customer transfers removed, competition flourishes, improving service and prices, and boosting consumer choice.
"It's broadly in line with our expectations, given that porting started right at the end of April," Mr Blackburn said of the number of former BTC customers to make the switch.
"We have seen an acceleration in terms of those numbers. At July 20, it was 4,000. It's now 13,000 three months later. It is an acceleration in pace as people start to understand the process and some early kinks in the process are ironed out between the operators."
Mr Blackburn said "three systems have to line up" to accomplish number portability, and there were sometimes isolated problems involving individual customers, but these were quickly addressed.
"Generally, from a day-to-day perspective, the process has been seamless and working pretty well," he added. "The customer is feeling the benefits of being able to move." Johnny Ingle, Aliv's chief champion (marketing officer), added: "The key thing is the speed at which consumers can enjoy the porting process. It's quite smooth."
Despite encountering temporary delays as a result of Hurricane Irma, Mr Blackburn said Aliv was on pace to complete its nationwide Bahamas roll-out ahead of the June 2018 target set by URCA as part of its license terms.
"We've done everything within our control to roll out as fast as we can," he told Tribune Business. "We're on the first four islands - New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco and Eleuthera - and did Bimini in the summer.
"We have all the network equipment installed on Andros and Exuma. It was installed before the hurricane, and we are co-ordinating with BTC to do the final things necessary to go live on these islands. That will be our next two launches, and we expect that within the next couple of weeks."
Mr Blackburn said Aliv had agreed a roll-out plan with BTC for its network infrastructure on the remaining islands in the southern Bahamas. "That roll-out, island by island, will go in the logical order moving south," he added.
"We expect [to finish] at the latest by early next year. We're hoping to get as many as possible on before Christmas, as I already pledged. The hurricane got in the way a bit in September, but we expect to do this well ahead of URCA's mandated roll-out of next June to be finished with everything. That's the final roll-out marker, and we're going at the right speed to do it."
Mr Blackburn added that his "musings" on the possible release by URCA of $5.6 million from Aliv's $18 million performance bond were three months old, and were not a confirmation this had actually occurred.
"The decision in relation to the performance bond and whether we're meeting our milestones are entirely URCA's," he told Tribune Business. "I can only give my comments on what we're doing. We will follow the process and respect the process."
Mr Blackburn said Aliv's financial performance to-date was "broadly in line with expectations" given its start-up nature, and battle to gain market share from an entrenched incumbent in the shape of BTC, which is well dug-in via a previous 15-year monopoly.