Number portability enables both fixed-line and mobile customers to keep the same number when changing from one telecoms operator to another. By most measures, it is considered an essential consumer right, as well as a way to increase competition in the market. Implemented for the first time in Hong Kong in 1995, the process soon became available in most European states, the US and highly developed countries in Asia.
In Latin America, the pioneers of number portability were Mexico and Brazil; both began offering the service in 2008. After a couple of years of indispensible technical and juridical preparations, Panama began implementing number portability in 2011, the first Central American country to provide phone users with the possibility of transferring their number to a different network operator. Three years since its introduction, the rate of ported numbers has continued to grow and the service has had a positive impact on the telecoms sector, fostering greater competition between telecoms companies and allowing consumers the freedom to choose the plan that best fits their needs.
According to data from the National Authority of Public Services, in the first 20 months following the implementation of number portability, 2.4% of mobile phone numbers had been ported to another service provide, along with 3.5% of fixed lines. This means that, on average, the daily number of ported numbers in that period reached 428 and 25 in the case of mobile phones and fixed lines, respectively.
Number portability has been gaining popularity among consumers. In the first half of 2014 over 67,000 numbers were ported, a 37.4% increase over the same period of the previous year. The most recent statistics were published at the end of 2014, three years after the introduction of the service. The data reveals that since 2011 over 339,000 mobile phone users have ported their numbers to another network, while 33,700 did the same with their fixed-line numbers.
Taking into consideration the quantity of active phone lines, in the past three years the proportion of phone number transfers amounted to 5.3% for mobile phones and 5.25% for fixed lines. Compared to previous statistics that measured the popularity of number portability in the first 20 months following its implementation, a considerable increase has been observed in porting among mobile users. In early 2015, about 550 mobile numbers were transferred daily. Meanwhile, the use of number portability remains rather stable for fixed-line customers, with the transfer rate staying constant at 25 ported numbers per day.
The implementation of free-of-charge number portability in Panama initially caused some concern among telecoms companies, who feared a sudden outflow of customers unsatisfied with their services. Nevertheless, despite the increasing number of transfers, the implementation of number portability has not affected the market’s equilibrium. This is in part due to a fee that is levied on customers who choose to port their numbers more than once. As a result, Panamanian mobile users tend to thoroughly consider their options before changing service providers.
As a result of Panama’s favourable outcome in implementing number portability, Costa Rica has used it as an example. The positive evaluation of Panama’s case convinced Costa Ricans of the advantages of number portability and its contribution to enhancing service quality. As a result, in November 2013, Costa Rica became the third country in Central America (after Panama and Honduras) to offer number portability.
Although number portability in Panama has been generally smooth, some complaints have been reported by pre-paid users willing to transfer their numbers. The most acute problem is with respect to SIM locks, common amongst devices sold with prepaid plans. Therefore, although the porting is free of charge, customers are often required to pay to unlock their mobile phones. Although some attempts have been made to fully eliminate the sale of locked devices, blocked mobiles are still on sale and usually offered with the most basic and economical pre-paid mobile plans.