THE SLOVAK mobile phone market is saturated, which has made recruiting new clients more difficult. The mobile phone penetration rate stood at 98.57 percent in March, with the three operators reporting a total of 5.323 million clients in a country of 5.4 million, the SITA newswire wrote.

Orange Slovensko and T-Mobile Slovensko remain the main operators, providing service to more than 5 million clients. The smallest and newest operator on the market, Telefónica O2 Slovakia, which began providing mobile services in February 2007, reported almost 300,000 clients at the end of the first quarter of 2008.

The saturated mobile market presents O2 with relatively few options for expansion, leaving it to have to fish for its competitors’ clients. Also number portability, a service that allows clients to keep their phone number when switching to another operator, seems to be crucial to O2’s future in Slovakia.

O2 recently announced that it would be offering automatic number portability as of May 5, portraying the occasion as the official opening of the country’s mobile market.

“The option of keeping your phone number when switching is the real unlocking of the competitive market,” René Parák, spokesman of Telefónica O2 Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator.

The Slovak Telecommunications Office (TÚ) expects that number portability will have a positive impact for those interested in the service.

“It should increase the quality of services and create pressure to cut prices, because the user won’t have a disincentive in the form of ‘the loss’ of their number when changing operators,” TÚ spokesman Roman Vavro told The Slovak Spectator.

But T-Mobile and Orange have labeled O2’s announcement a PR gimmick. They noted that they made number portability available to clients in 2006 and that O2 has offered it since November 2007, but through a manual system, which is no different from the client’s point of view.

However, O2 has interpreted the situation differently.

“O2 was able to implement automatic number portability only after it and the Telecommunications Office applied 17 months of pressure,” Parák said.

Orange and T-Mobile reject this.

“Number portability has been available on the Slovak market for over 17 months and has been available at the third operator since November 2007,” Peter Tóth, corporate affairs manager of Orange, told The Slovak Spectator.

“We worked with the third operator and the supplier of the technology so that the third operator was prepared for automatic number portability as soon as possible,” Tóth continued for The Slovak Spectator.

Representatives from all the mobile operators attended negotiations about O2’s adoption of the automatic system, Andrej Gargulák, T-Mobile’s external communications manager, told The Slovak Spectator.

“We saw the negotiations as objective and open, with the aim of making the portability of phone numbers between all mobile operator networks in Slovakia available as soon as possible,” Gargulák said.

Since this was an extension of the existing system, T-Mobile insisted that the system be properly tested among all the operators.

Regardless, number portability has not become a service that is propelling the mobile market.

Since its launch in May 2006, only a negligible number of clients have used it so far, according to T-Mobile.

“By the end of April, about 5,000 clients had taken their number along when arriving from the competition,” said Gargulák. “A total of 5,400 of our clients requested this service when switching to another operator.”

Yet O2 still expects that automatic number portability will increase its list of clients.

According to Parák, 1,472 customers have applied to take their number to O2 since November 2007.

“Slovak clients want this service, but they have little information,” said Parák. “There has probably not been a lot of interest in informing them about it.”

Telefónica O2 Slovakia does not charge its clients a fee for switching to another operator and awards Sk500 to anyone who switches to it.

T-Mobile charges customers Sk595, including VAT, to change their operator and keep their number.
“The aim of this fee is to cover at least part of the costs of maintaining this service,” Gargulák of T-Mobile told The Slovak Spectator. “We will decide about a potential change in the charge independently, taking into consideration objective calculations.”

According to Orange’s website, the biggest Slovak operator charges Sk399, including VAT, for this service.

O2 also said it wants to cut down on the time needed for the number to be officially switched, noting that the process takes much less time in Great Britain, Germany or Austria. Current legislation allows a maximum of 25 working days for the switch to be finalised.

“At the moment, it takes 12 days on average to move the number from T-Mobile to another operator,” Gargulák told the Spectator.

The TÚ is also pushing operators to improve the situation in number portability.

“The TÚ chairman has called on operators several times to explain why, if it is possible to order and activate services by phone, e-mail, or text message, it is not also possible to do so concerning number portability?” Vavro told The Slovak Spectator.