China’s telecommunications ministry launched Wednesday the country’s long-awaited mobile number portability program that allows mobile users to keep their phone numbers when switching to a new network provider, reported state-run news agency Xinhua.

Why it matters: The service has been under discussion for years and faced resistance from the country’s three major telecom carriers because it removes a bar for mobile users seeking to change their service providers.

  • The United States and most European countries implemented mobile number portability in the early 2000s.
  • Carriers are reluctant to allow number portability because retaining one’s original phone number was an incentive to stay with a current operator, according to a commentary published by Beijing News in March.
  • The move is also expected to boost users for virtual network operators, which usually provide cheaper cellular data plans. Virtual network services emerged in China’s saturated telecom market after 15 operators were granted licenses in July 2018.

Details: The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), China’s top telecoms regulator, on Wednesday opened mobile number portability and urged mobile operators “not to interfere in free user choice.”

  • The MIIT found during service trials that some carriers set “systematic obstacles” for users seeking to switch network providers and retain their phone numbers, said Lu Chuncong, deputy director of the information and communications administration at MIIT.
  • The ministry increased its supervision of telecom operators during the trial and pressed them to rectify such practices, according to Lu.
  • The program applies to the three major carriers, Lu said, without mentioning virtual service operators.

Context: The MIIT said in March that number portability between the three major carriers and virtual network operators would not be viable until 2020, according to Beijing Daily (in Chinese). However, portability between the three primary carriers is effective as of Wednesday.

  • The three state-owned mobile carriers—China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom—have a combined subscriber base of nearly 1.6 billion as of June, exceeding the country’s population.
  • Virtual network operator subscribers reached 80 million as of the end of 2018, and is expected (in Chinese) to surge after mobile number portability is fully implemented.
  • Woniu Mobile, one of China’s biggest virtual carriers, filed for an initial public offering in Hong Kong last week, according to Chinese finance news outlet IPO Zaozhidao. It is China’s biggest virtual network provider, with 13 million subscribers as of August 2018.

Writing about semiconductors and telecommunications.

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