Wireless Number Portability - the Pursuit of Happyness

In Canada, the big day for wireless watchers is Wed this week. That's the day WNP - Wireless Number Portability - takes effect. This topic is getting almost as much attention right now as the shift to Daylight Savings Time this weekend! It sure is great to look out the window at 7pm and still see daylight. Plus, the weather has really warmed up, and hey, it's just starting to feel good all over. Our winters are long here, so forgive me for rambling....

Not surprisingly, WNP is getting heavy play in the media, and this weekend, the Globe & Mail kicked off the first of a series of features on what the fuss is all about. As the title of my post implies, the name of the game is customer satisfaction.

We have just a handful of wireless carriers here, so it's all about keeping the customer happy and not giving him/her a reason to switch. This article focuses on how Telus claims to have the highest satisfaction among its subscribers, and is being challenged by Virgin Mobile for this distinction. Since all the wireless operators are offering similar services, there isn't much differentiation happening. Also, since the market is basically an oligopoly, you're not going to see the carriers get into a price war. So, they're going to compete on customer service and satisfaction, which are good things to be doing, but I'm not sure it's going make much difference.

Frankly, I think this is largely a zero sum game where the deck just gets shuffled a bit, but at the end of the game, there are still 52 cards. WNP might help nudge overall adoption of wireless up a bit, as there will be some who are ready to cut their landline. But for the majority, it's about switching from one wireless carrier to another, and I don't think there will be any huge swings once it's all said and done. Win one, lose one....

The Globe article presented some very interesting data about how the market shares vary wildly from province to province. Their data is from 2005, so it's not entirely accurate, but I don't think the overall picture has changed that dramatically. Basically, Telus leads in the 2 main Western provinces (their home base) - B.C. and Alberta. Bell owns the Atlantic region and has a strong hold on Quebec. Rogers is the leader in Ontario, but Bell is not far behind. And then there's Saskatchewan and Manitoba, both of which are practically monopolies, where the provincial wireless operators hold most of the subscribers. Very interesting mix, especially considering that while Rogers may be the #1 wireless operator in Canada, in 2005, they were the market leader in only one province - Ontario. I'll stop there, as I get a bit nervous reading much more into data from 2005.

Numbers aside, I think we can expect to see Bell aggressively go after Telus's stronghold out West. After all, wireless is the reason why Telus has been such a stock market darling, and the inverse has largely been true for Bell. Telus, of course, will try to do the same out East, as this is has been by far the market they've had the most success penetrating. They aren't in the residential landline business here, and they've had limited success in the business market. So, they have a lot riding on wireless for their growth plans out East.

And then there's Rogers. They've had the hot hand lately, adding more subs than anyone, and have the most interesting mix of services that can be bundled. I know first hand, since I'm a Rogers customer. I've been getting constant calls and mailers from them about how I can upgrade my wireless plan. So, Rogers will be a target for both Bell and Telus, making this a three-way race. It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out, especially by region, and when the scorecard comes my way, I'll be posting.

UPDATE - I held off posting so I could read today's WNP feature in the Globe & Mail, and that's a good thing. Today's story raised some very interesting points that only reinforce my view that WNP may not be that big a deal in the end.

1. When you port your number, guess what? You have to get a new phone. Ughh. In the voice-only days, that wasn't such a big deal. But with today's Swiss Army Knife phones, people's whole lives are stored on their mobile phones, so now there's more work involved to transfer all your directories, MP3s, videos, photos, etc. to another phone. Presuming you can find a phone that you like. To me, that can be a significant switching cost in terms the effort involved.

On that count, WNP may well favor those who have the coolest phones. In my books, that's gotta be Rogers, mainly because they're on GSM. That means the Blackbery Pearl. And... big drum roll...if you can wait until summer... the iPhone. The jury is still out - at least for me - as to whether the iPhone will re-invent mobility, but I'd much rather have that product in my stable than in someone else's.

For those of you who have read this far along, you may notice that there's no mention of this point in the article I just referred to. Correct. It was mentioned in a sidebar that ran the print edition, but not online. So, you don't get all the good stuff online - but you do the reader comments, which I just love.

2. Contracts. Unlike the VoIP world, wireless is all about the contracts. It's not always so easy to just up and go to another carrier. I know I'm in the middle of 3 year terms for both my cell phone and my Blackberry, and it's going to be expensive if I decide to switch carriers. I think it's a pretty safe bet that our wireless carriers won't be waving these penalties come Wednesday. So, another switching factor to consider.

3. Did you know...."When a customer moves their number to another carrier, for example, that data will be transferred via a hub in Tampa operated by Syniverse Technologies Inc." ???

I had no idea, and this point is kind of buried in the article. Syniverse Technologies may be well known in the wireless community, but they're hardly a household world among consumers. I don't think it's a stretch to say that some Canadians would be uncomfortable if they knew that their efforts to port over to a new carrier would entail sending personal data down to the U.S.

This subtlety was not lost on readers of this article, and a quick scan of the comments confirms my suspicions - at least from a few readers. This may well be one of those things that's no big deal, but the fact that WNP is not a complete made-in-Canada handoff, will not sit well with everyone. In my books, that's going to be another reason for some people to just stay put.

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