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Wireless carriers answer call for number swaps

AT&T Wireless and Cingular are set to adopt practices for meeting a federal mandate that gives consumers the right to retain their phone numbers if they change mobile carriers.

AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless are set to adopt practices for meeting a federal mandate that gives consumers the right to retain their phone numbers if they swap mobile carriers.

The companies said Friday that they signed a contract detailing the procedures necessary for allowing customers to move between their respective services while preserving existing phone numbers. The service-level agreement covers any subscriber who swaps AT&T Wireless for Cingular, a joint venture between BellSouth and SBC Communications, and vice versa.

The Federal Communications Commission's local number portability mandate goes into effect Nov. 24, creating stiff penalties for phone service providers that deny defecting customers the right to take their old phone numbers with them. Studies have shown that consumers are reluctant to switch wireless plans in part because they don't want to change phone numbers. The FCC order also applies to consumers who want to transfer landline numbers to wireless accounts.

Some telecommunications industry watchers have predicted that the FCC mandate will touch off a landslide of activity among consumers as the so-called annoyance tax of losing one's phone number is eliminated from the process of swapping carriers.

After unsuccessfully fighting it out with the FCC in court, the nation's top six wireless carriers have effectively thrown in the towel regarding the directive and have begun preparing to deal with its consequences. In their legal disputes, the carriers claimed that the collective $1 billion they would be forced to spend in order to comply with the mandate was an unfairly large expense.

The deal between AT&T Wireless and Cingular represents the latest in a string of similar agreements reached between wireless carriers as they move to meet the FCC's deadline. Both companies have already reached similar agreements with rival Sprint PCS. Cingular also established terms with Nextel Communications, which has announced its own contract with Sprint. T-Mobile USA has set things in motion with AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Sprint and Verizon Wireless.

The AT&T-Cingular agreement addresses operational details such as troubleshooting problems caused by customer transfers and business rules the carriers will follow during the porting process. While the FCC doesn't require carriers to officially sign agreements regarding porting numbers, AT&T Wireless and Cingular said they agreed that a formal contract would allow them to cooperate more efficiently.