China goverment inspectors flay operators over number portability

Chinese government inspectors have slammed operators for obstruction, delays and illegal behavior in implementing mobile number portability (MNP).

A State Council inspection team said its site visits had revealed that local telcos "have not seriously implemented MNP. Instead of offering it as a service that benefits people they have applied it as a competitive service to retain users."

Additionally, operators had "imposed conditions at will, set multiple invisible thresholds and eliminated the benefits of MNP," the inspection team said in a report.

The inspectors had made unannounced visits to operator stores and customer service centers in Henan and Shandong provinces in January, state news agency Xinhua reported.

They found that the introduction of portability had brought out the creativity in telcos, but not in ways anticipated.

For example, a China Mobile user was told on the morning of January 1 that she was eligible to port to China Unicom, but in the afternoon discovered her contract had been extended for another 12 months.

In another case, China Unicom had imposed an extra three months on a user who asked to transfer, so he applied to cancel the service. He discovered days later that not only was the contract not canceled, but an extra 12-month contract had been added without his knowledge.

Operators also imposed restrictions on customers with popular numbers, which attract a premium in the China market. One China Telecom branch charges 64,000 yuan ($9,171) to port so-called "pretty numbers." Another branch slugs them RMB60,000.

It was not reported what prompted the launch of the inspection team, but one clue is the low number of successful portings since MNP was launched at the end of November. (See Chinese Operators Invest $427M in Number Portability Prep.)

In that time, just 1.84 million customers have changed service provider. That's 0.11% of the total of 1.69 billion connections in service over three months, or a monthly aggregate churn of 0.03%.

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While Chinese operators don't break out their postpaid customer numbers, their churn rate is still in a different orbit from that of other Asian telcos. Hutchison Hong Kong reported monthly postpaid churn of 1.2% in 2019, while SK Telecom had 1.0% and SingTel 0.9%.

The inspection report also found responses to customers on portability often varied wildly, with some customers receiving different advice from different customer service centers, and from online and offline customer service agents.

These frustrated customers will likely welcome the report's findings that operators had deliberately engaged in "artificial obstruction and delays" and that the unauthorized alteration of customer contracts was illegal.

But they might wonder at the point of the exercise when the report refrains from proposing penalties on operators or staff.

Instead, it calls vaguely on regulators to increase industry supervision and for operators to investigate violations themselves.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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