2 SIM cards with chips punched out to make one integrated SIM card, Accra, Ghana, 2007

Use of Multiple Mobile Phone Numbers (part 1)

2 SIM cards with chips punched out to make one integrated SIM card, Accra, Ghana, 2007

I recently visited a shanzai phone market in Shenzhen, China. Due to its proximity to the main production hub of mobile phones of all brands and manufacturers, it is a true showcase of all kinds of mobiles you ever imagined to exist. As with the timing, there were a lot of design copy products of Nokia’s recent model N8. On one visit to the market, I saw several versions of N8 design copies, with very different feature sets – which was a trend I did not witness when I visited the shanzai market in Chengdu a few years ago.

Various fake copies of Nokia N8 in Shenzhen shanzai phone market

The copies of N8 can be categorized as:
– Dual SIM with TV functionality
– Copy close to the real product
– Various chipset (price tag changes according to the CPU speed)

It is interesting to note the competition space even within fake phones of the same product. While these ‘enhanced’ unique selling points may be just a gimmick, you might also think that there is some level of genius in those features reflecting the market norms.

Fake N8 with the antenna out stresses that it has the TV functionality.
Shanzai phone market, Shenzhen, China, 2010

There are numerous mobile phone models designed to take more than one SIM card. Most of fake mobile phones or lesser-known brand names in the market now has the dual SIM feature as if it is as essential as having the mobile network radio itself. In fact, it is one of the big yet stealth changes in the basic feature set of mobile phones in the last 4 years – especially among the lesser-known brands, low-end of the price tags, and shanzai markets. Despite the popularity surrounding us in several large mobile phone markets including India, China and African countries – I have seen few buzz on the ‘dual SIM’ phenomenon. Thereby I put together a brief post, digging information from an internal research report I wrote for my employer in 2007.

Having multiple mobile phone numbers may be seen as an anti-trend when the mobile phone number portability is increasing becoming a part of the basic civil rights in several countries. But for the time being, the following circumstances drive people to use more than one mobile phone numbers:

1. Lowering the cost of communication
Many mobile network operators offer cheaper rates for inter-network calls, especially in markets where competition among network operators is high. Highly cost-conscious consumers naturally get multiple numbers for cheaper calls. While it may not take too much effort to acquire the new number itself, this comes at a cost of efforts and skill: Remembering, or identifying who in your social network has the number belonging to a specific network operator. People develop a tactic, such as indicating the network operator in the name stored on the phonebook. This is not an exclusive behavior only for the developing economies, however. When the 3G network was newly introduced in Japan several years ago, many Japanese consumers also owned two numbers, one from 3G for cheaper messaging & data connection, another from existing network for cheaper voice calls.

An ideal mobile phone idea hosting 4 SIM cards,
as ‘operators’ rates vary and everyone has more than one SIM card in his community’,
Camp Buduburam – Liberian refugee camp, Ghana, 2007

In the street surveys done in 2007 as part of our research project, the following percentage of users surveyed had two or more mobile phone numbers:
– Accra, Ghana (n=309): 30%
– Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (n=230): 28%
– Chongqing, China (n=150): 9%
– Mumbai, India (n=165): 16%

Considering the fast changing nature of the mobile market, this number probably have changed significantly especially with new players joining in the market.

2. Controlling points of contacts
Another motivation to have more than one number is for the user to control how one is contacted and contactable. Naturally users typically have a strategy on handing out the right number to the right person for future contactability. Our research participants most commonly report separating private and business contacts by having separate numbers. Being able to switch one number completely offline is a way of switching the mental mode, such as “I am turning my work phone off as I am not working anymore”. Small business owners and those who deal with a large number of people can identify the type of contacts easily by differentiating which phone number they use. One Chinese electronic shop owner gave out one of his mobile phone number for his best customers, ensuring that he is always reachable for them. The ease of having another mobile phone number also provides the exclusive communication channel for some, like those in early or secret relationships.

3. Ensuring reliable connectivity
Unreliable network availability or unavailability of the particular network in the area where you live or work may drive users to be ready with multiple numbers from different network operators. In Ghana, people had the perception that the quality of the connection can not be ensured with one network alone hence multiple numbers were essential to prevent disrupted communication. For many prepaid mobile subscribers, having multiple phone numbers means that user can minimize the risk of getting disconnected because of running out of prepaid credit in critical situation.

To be continued in part 2 of the post….