China's telecom sector may be racing to global 5G dominance, but it is also grappling with the very old-school problem of mobile number portability (MNP).
The government aims to make portability -- the ability for consumers to keep their number when changing mobile operators -- available by year-end.
Last year, a paltry 1.67 million users changed networks, just 0.001% of the national total of 1.6 billion.
It's not clear why China, with its bold ambitions to be a global leader in AI, supercomputing, autonomous vehicles and robotics, has taken so long over MNP.
Consumers in the UK and Hong Kong have been able to change operators and keep their original number since 1999.
Since then, more than 80 countries have implemented MNP, including such tech superpowers as Honduras, Senegal and the Maldives. It's been available in the US since 2003.
In China, however, each operator is known by its number range -- 139 for China Mobile, 186 for China Unicom and 189 for China Telecom.
Up to now, consumers have been wedded to their provider for life unless they want to go through the disruption of adopting a new number.
The issue came to the top of the agenda in March when Premier Li Keqiang made it a priority in his annual work report.
MIIT chief Miao Wei subsquently promised that by the end of the year all mobile phone users will be free to transfer their numbers.
"If you are not satisfied with one company, you can choose another one to provide services for you with your number."
In a pilot underway in five provinces and cities, 2.3 million users have successfully changed networks, according to MIIT.
The obvious explanation for the tardy embrace of MNP is the operators' market power.
Such is the tepid level of competition that MIIT officials have spent the last four years jawboning the three big players to cut prices and improve data speeds.
Now, with the dominance of WeChat and on-net calling, the telcos are finding they now have an incentive to be more responsive to their customers.
Additionally, it seems they have struggled with the technical difficulties of MNP, according to a report by 21st Century Financial News.
The industry was working on a solution as far back as 2010 but found that often the porting requests could not be verified.
Last year, the then-deputy MIIT chief Luo Wen said a MNP pilot was underway but was being slowed down by "technical difficulties" and unlikely to be implemented nationwide until 2020.
These issues have reportedly been resolved by the China Information and Communication Research Institute, which had been commissioned by the MIIT to build a management platform to support MNP porting.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading