National mobile number portability: What happens before your new operator welcomes you

National mobile number portability has been in the news for a while now. Although it isn’t a new concept to Indians, today the service extended across the country. In 2011, you could switch from one operator to another, albeit within the same telecom circle.


National mobile number portability has been in the news for a while now. Although it isn’t a new concept to Indians, today the service extended across the country. In 2011, you could switch from one operator to another, albeit within the same telecom circle. However, starting today, subscribers can switch to any telecom circle in India, and retain the same number.

So what transpired in these four years since 2011 to grant an operational service across the country? To understand the complexities in India, we’d have to take a closer look at the telecom industry. As of May 2015, there are 11 mobile operators in India. Also, according to the Department of Telecommunications, “The country is divided into 23 Service Areas consisting of 19 Telecom Circle and 4 Metro Service Areas for providing Unified Access Services (UAS)”.

The single biggest reason for the delay is handling the technical complexities across 11 mobile operators and 19 telecom circles across India. So if you are a BSNL subscriber in Pune switching to Idea in Delhi, then there are a lot of records that are switching databases. And enabling this capability took 4 years.

 National mobile number portability: What happens before your new operator welcomes you

The structure of cellular mobile network

Typically, a mobile operator has certain key components as part of its architecture that tracks location and billing details of the mobile subscriber. Since a mobile network typically covers a country, it is a seamless affair. However, in India, there are 19 telecom circles. For a computing system of a network, it’s as good as 19 countries. Intra-country roaming is what we have been habituated to here.

Hopefully, all of that is about to change with the first step being national mobile number portability (NMNP). To keep track of roaming billing, every mobile operator has a home location register (HLR) and a visitor location register (VLR) to monitor billing of subscribers on the network at any given point in time. Respective tariffs are levied depending on the subscriber being in the home network or roaming (visitor location register of the other operator) network.

Since operators were divided across 19 telecom circles, there was no direct sharing of subscriber data between the telecom operators unless they were part of the same telecom network.

From the donor to the receiver

As you port your number, your existing network is the donor network. A mobile number portability operator is at the core of the whole process. It is also known as a mobile number portability clearing house (MCH). When you send a request for porting your number, it is passed on to the MCH. The MCH in turn, passes the request to your existing operator (also known as donor operator). The donor operator then checks your billing operator for any uncleared dues, plans or contracts.

Once this verification happens in the donor operator's database, your number is cleared for porting. Practically, a trigger is also sent to customer service, and you will start getting calls trying to convince you to stay with the network provider! The MCH coordinates the whole porting process.

The porting code received from the donor operator is then passed on to the receiving operator. Similar to the way a subscriber switches from one cell site to the other while moving, your subscriber details are moved from the home location register of the donor operator to the receiving operator. At that instance, your donor network ceases to serve you, and your new operator takes on from there. Your new SIM card gets activated!

Years have passed by in the effort to get mobile operators come onto a common platform and cooperate with mobile number portability. The biggest gain for consumers is the competitive pricing that portability initiates. Hopefully, service quality should now finally improve.


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