Chinese customers can keep their numbers (at last)

China has finally implemented number portability, allowing customers to keep their number when they change service provider.

The Chinese government – despite some opposition from carriers and the huge scale of the undertaking – was determined to introduce number portability for Chinese customers. Premier Li Keqiang made it a priority in his annual work report and once the political will was present, things happened relatively quickly.

China had embarrassingly fallen behind other countries (with more than 80 having introduced NP before it did) that are nowhere near as technically advanced as it is. The issue wasn’t technical competence – China is more than capable of implementing NP – but more about priorities, scale and the nature of the Chinese market. Remember, the UK still hasn’t updated its number portability system after 20 years. But with India introducing number porting in 2011, the lack of the facility meant China was falling behind.

That said, readers should remember that one part of China has had number porting for some time – Hong Kong which was one of the pioneering countries to introduce it back in the 90s.

Why was such a technically advanced country so far behind?

China was behind partly because it had emphasised technological advancement rather than competition and the needs of customers.

Lack of portability effectively locked customers in for life – much as had been the case in the rest of the world until the Netherlands and the UK pioneered the facility in the 90s. The problem was stark though. In a country of of 1.4 billion people, only 1.67 million customers changed service provider in 2018.

Scalability was another issue. Building a China-wide process was fraught with difficulties, with early pilots not being able to verify porting requests.

Since China was unlikely to use Western vendors for this process, it effectively had to start from scratch – just as The Netherlands and the UK had done in the late 90s.

Once prioritised, operators made it happen

With the political will to make it happen, operators finally made number porting a priority and focused on implementation. The cost of the solution was staggering by Western standards – reported by MIIT official Lu Chuncong, to be $427 million.

And there were teething problems. With China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) saying the system sometimes shut down and customers had complained they could not access the Internet or recharge their phone account, or use existing applications or services. Another issue was one of regulation in a country with no national law. Lu said that as a result the ministry would “strengthen the guidance and supervision” of telcos.

As a result, MIIT set up an inspection team of more than 500 officials and CAICT said they would continuously monitor the portability network and back-end capabilities, focusing on monitoring illegal shutdowns, interruption of system services and irregular interaction with users.

The results have been as staggering as the upfront cost. In the first week alone, 3.16 million customers ported their numbers across five pilot regions.