This week saw South Africa become the first country on the continent to offer mobile users number portability. Predictably some of the mobile operators – most notably Vodacom – were complaining loudly at the cost. Elsewhere portability has been a contributory factor in creating greater competition and lower prices for consumers.

So far few people have used the R300m system designed to let cellphone users hop from one network to another and take their number with them that it has cost Vodacom R1m for each customer to do so.

In the first three days of number portability, Vodacom welcomed 60 new customers and lost 40 to the rival networks. But they are the most expensive customers it has ever won and lost, since Vodacom contributed R100m towards the system, meaning each person had cost the company R1m to handle, said CEO Alan Knott-Craig last week.

The effect was negligible given that Vodacom signed up an average of 29,000 more subscribers every day -- either first-time users or users defecting from another network without taking their number with them.

About 2,300 other people have signalled their intention to port to Vodacom's network within the next 30 days, with 230 planning to leave. Knott-Craig said if those figures did not pick up significantly the whole process would have been "a hell of an expensive exercise in futility".

The advent of number portability went by almost unnoticed and was such a non-event that Knott-Craig had needed to push his managers to compile the statistics for release when Vodacom issued its financial results figures yesterday.

Other networks would not comment on how many customers had applied to port. Virgin Mobile's Nicholas Maweni said the network "had seen huge numbers of people move to Virgin, and this is obviously just the beginning".

MTN said the process was running smoothly, with Bernice Samuels, its GM for strategy and marketing communications, saying: "Customers joining the growing MTN network are doing so comfortably, without glitches."

Number portability was demanded by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) to prevent people from being locked into one network because they did not want to relinquish their number.

Virgin Mobile lobbied for the service to be introduced even before it launched in SA so it could sign up higher-spending contract customers unwilling to sacrifice their number. Cell C also urged Icasa to speed up its implementation, believing its smaller customer base gave it more to win and less to lose than its larger rivals.

None of the networks charge customers to join their networks, despite the switch technology costs. Research house World Wide Worx expects fewer than 500,000 people to port their numbers over the next two years as contracts committing them to one of the networks expired.

Business Day