You are not free. You only think you are. Which is exactly the way the telcos like it. But deep down, we know that we are slaves to our SIM cards. Our SIM cards are the leash with which our dear telcos have managed to keep us in line for this long.
Subscribing to a mobile network provider in Nigeria is something out of a psych thriller, like one of those abusive relationships that you just can’t seem to get out of, no matter how badly you’re hurt. We’re always complaining about how bad this or that telco is but it never takes us long to get over it. Until the next screw up…then we start ranting again.
Usually, things aren’t this complicated. When brands screw up, people just dump them and move on to to the next one who serves them better or treats them nicer. But with telcos, it’s a bit different. In these parts, just after your name, your phone number is probably the next most important bit of personal information you possess. When something about you is that important, you generally don’t get into the habit of changing it arbitrarily or frequently. Thus, regardless of whether people are happy or not, the subscriber churn rate of telcos will probably be significantly lower, relative to other service industries.
The telcos are having a field day simply because they know that the decision to switch providers is almost always a painful one, with instant withdrawal symptoms. Loyalty is inspired not by customer satisfaction or even fantastical promises of airplanes, but by fear. The fear of losing your identity. The fear of starting all over again. For many, the tedious process of re-acquainting their friends and family, business contacts, bank, government, the web…with their new mobile identity is just beyond them.
You might think that as the demand for voice service begins to wane and Nigeria enters the era of data and broadband, email addresses , Twitter handles and even BB pins (yes, BlackBerry pins) might slowly begin to usurp the role of mobile phone numbers as primary human identifiers. But that isn’t likely to be the case. If anything, current national and industry pushes in mobile money and cashless society initiatives will keep us in the thrall of our SIM cards, seeing as the individual phone number, for identification and authentication purposes, as well as for access to the lowest common denominator in Nigerian demography, is the base upon which the whole system is built.
Then there is that obscure messiah policy that we have long anticipated, the coming of number portability, for years now. But it’s still no more than a mirage in a hot desert. The popular theory is that the local telcos whose interests will suffer the most damage — mass subscriber flight — are doing everything they can to delay its coming, if not prevent it altogether. Indeed, if number portability were to come into play, I sincerely doubt that even the promise of personal airplanes will stanch the inevitable customer haemorrhage. It would be like 2003 all over again, when Glo came onto the Nigerian mobile scene and broke the reigning per minute billing hegemony that had hitherto been in place, to resounding acclaim by grateful subscribers, and of course, the chagrin of existing players who had been making outsize returns off the current billing system and had no intentions of implementing per second tarrifs at that point in time.
Love them or hate them, but as far as I can see, we’re still stuck with our SIM cards, and by extension, our dear telcos. For curiousity’s sake however, would you switch mobile providers if you could still keep your phone number with the new one?