In the 1990s people would fish out their mobile phones when they sensed enough onlookers, such as at a wedding reception. In those days, it was irrefutable evidence of your social standing. At Rs 16.80 a minute, call rates made sure of that. Mind you, the same charges applied on incoming calls too. Mobile telephony has come a long way since then and emerged as one of the few industries in which there are many winners. It has made life easier (did we actually manage to receive relatives at New Delhi Railway Station without a mobile phone?). All sorts of occupations, not least the small traders, have benefited. Ola and Uber could not have existed without the mobile phone. And of course big companies and businessmen have emerged. Interestingly, corporate prosperity has risen as companies have provided better facilities and care to consumers. Not always through their own initiative and not always willingly. A lot of it was driven by regulation and competition. Incoming became free, call rates crashed, convenient pre-paid packages came in and handsets, including smartphones, became truly affordable.
Now comes full mobile number portability (MNP). From last Friday, you can take your mobile number with you wherever you go — to a different operator or city. So far this could be done while switching operators within a circle. Many Indians love numbers, in a different way from loving data. Some go the extra mile, and pay extra money, to obtain a vehicle or mobile number that is just what the numerologist ordered, or one that sounds plain fancy. Earlier, if they retained their mobile number while living in a city outside their circle, they would end up paying higher call charges — incoming would be charged, too.
The consumer, therefore, scores again with full MNP. For all the advances in technology and features, mobile phone companies have not exactly set the standards in customer service. But regulation has generally backed the consumer. Of course, the operators will not be delighted with this, although each has put out attractive offers for those who want to migrate, especially because, as this newspaper reported, full MNP could be a precursor to free roaming. That will mean the loss of one more source of revenue at a time when the SMS, once a money spinner, is ailing and debt on the companies’ books has surged due to expensive spectrum. But the march of technology did not stop in spite of the stiff opposition mounted by the horse-drawn carriage lobby when trains arrived.