Number Portability Available Today

November 24, 2003
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The cliché “taking it with you” took on new meaning this week with the ability of wireless telephone users to keep their phone number when they switch service providers.

Under new Federal Communications Commission orders, wireless telephone users now may also change, or “port,” their wireline phone numbers to their wireless phones.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the decision to “cut the cord,” is designed to foster greater competition between wireless and wireline telephone service providers and generate “significant consumer benefits.”

“It will eliminate a barrier between the two types of services and it will increase direct competition,” said Stephen Wildman, director of the Quello Center for Telecommunications Management and Law at Michigan State University. “People will start to view wireless more as a substitution for their wireline phone.”

How quickly that change will occur is anyone’s guess.

A consumer research report by the research firm PriMetrica, in partnership with Ernst & Young, indicates wireless service will begin to displace wireline service. The firms found that nearly half of the responding households surveyed would switch their wireline service to a wireless plan offering 600 shared minutes for $50 a month.

Wildman anticipates a slow change, with wireless carriers gaining incremental market shares each year.

He likens competition between wireless and wireline telephone service to that of television viewing habits. In the last 20 years cable channels have eroded the viewing audience of broadcast networks incrementally each year, to the point where broadcast viewership is down significantly over the longer period.

Wildman believes number portability will lead to the same scenario, with wireless service providers gaining incrementally year to year.

“How big that will be is something we’ll have to gauge in the longer term,” he said.

A spokesman for the largest local phone service provider in Michigan, SBC Communications Inc., said the firm welcomes the competition. SBC, through a variety of service packages, is prepared to compete against wireless service providers and fully supports number portability, Denise Koenig said.

“This is good for customers. They should be able to switch and keep their number,” Koenig said.

SBC holds a 60 percent stake in a wireless carrier, Cingular, although that service is not available in Grand Rapids.

In making the pitch for people to keep their wireline service, she cites its higher reliability, particularly during events such as the August blackout that left some wireless customers unable to use their phones. Wireline technology is also more suitable for use with broadband Internet services and fax machines, Koenig said.

Still, the PriMetrica/Ernst & Young study found that consumers’ perception about quality and service reliability “is no longer enough to engender loyalty.”

Local number portability begins today for consumers in the 100 largest metropolitan markets, including the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon area. Smaller markets begin portability in May.

Phone companies, in preparing for the change in the federal regulation, have been urging customers to take a deliberate approach and research their options.

To change wireless carriers and maintain the old number, a wireless customer needs to keep the existing wireless service active. And only an authorized account holder can switch a phone number, either at a retail store on by phone.

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