Major carriers will now have until Nov. 24, 2003, to make that service available, the Federal Communications Commission ruled. The FCC had previously set a November 2002 deadline by which the companies would have to allow cell phone customers to keep their phone numbers if they change service providers.
The FCC was acting upon a petition from Verizon Wireless to drop the plan entirely, grant a delay or exempt Verizon from the program entirely. Other carriers have filed papers supporting Verizon's petition.
Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeff Nelson said Tuesday that the company was "disappointed" that the FCC had not eliminated the requirement altogether.
So-called "number portability" is part of a one-two punch of FCC requirements that are designed to helpthe shrinking pool of 10-digit phone numbers assigned to North American wireless users. Billions of telephone numbers are assigned to that area, and new ones are due to run out by 2012.
The FCC composed two conservation measures. One was "number portability," or letting people keep their phone numbers even if they switch carriers. The second measure was to force carriers to be assigned a smaller amount of telephone numbers at a time. Carriers are also fighting this so-called number pooling.
Number-portability proponents, generally wireless customers, say that keeping a phone number is a customer benefit that could increase competition among carriers.
Carriers say the industry is already competitive, with a high number of customers switching phone companies even though they don't have the option of keeping their numbers. Carriers also estimate that it would cost $1 billion across the industry to make the necessary changes.
This is the third occasion on which carriers have been given more time to make number portability occur. The FCC issued its first delay in 1998.
The four FCC commissioners and FCC Chairman Michael Powell all supported the delay. In short remarks before casting their votes, the commissioners all pointed out that they were only granting a delay, not lifting the requirement entirely.
"As we continue to exhaust numbers, conservation becomes vital," Powell said.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the delay was enough for the law enforcement community to make sure there would be no "ill effect" on its ability to respond to 911 calls, one of the issues raised during the last several months of debate.
Verizon Wireless and the chief lobbyist for the wireless industry, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), registered their "disappointment" that the FCC hadn't eliminated the number portability requirement.
"Today's number-portability decision is a step in the right direction, but the real destination is lifting the burden from consumers altogether, not just delaying it," said CTIA Chief Executive Tom Wheeler. "Number portability is another example of a government mandate that adds to the consumer's bill and siphons away the cost reductions that have resulted from competition."
Verizon Wireless' Nelson said Tuesday that the FCC has chosen to "intervene in the marketplace," rather than let competitive forces work out problems.