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Number switching hits rural delays

Small landline phone service providers are winning small victories that are adding up to regulatory headaches.

U.S. cell phone subscribers in some rural areas may not be able to switch to a different carrier and take their old number with them, because small local providers are being allowed to delay adoption of the new rules.

Six months ago, U.S. cell phone carriers in 100 cities began letting people make the switch. The results, initially, were disastrous. Armed with months of lessons about the technical glitches that kept people waiting weeks, the cell phone industry in 10 days will expand number porting to the rest of the country.

About 40 percent of the U.S. wireless dialing public is expected to have a much smoother ride than their big city colleagues, telephone industry executives said in recent interviews. First Cellular of Southern Illinois, for one, is already offering portability to its customers.

"It has been a nonevent," said Terry Addington, chief executive of First Cellular.

But when the six extra months the Federal Communications Commission gave rural carriers to prepare elapses on May 24, it won't be all smooth sailing. A number of people won't be able to keep their number when "cutting the cord" and dropping their landline phone in favor of going solo with a cell phone.

Small landline phone service providers like Chariton Valley Telecom are winning waivers from state utility regulators that could add up to headaches.

On Wednesday, Chariton, in Macon, Mo., got permission from the Missouri Public Service Commission to ignore the FCC's mandate on May 24. The tiny telecom company argued, among other things, that the mandate was prohibitively expensive. Missouri joins other states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Montana and West Virginia that have given local phone companies more time to comply, or have suspended the requirement altogether.

Local number portability debuted between landline phones in 1999. It was the cell phone industry's turn six months ago. Under an FCC edict, number porting had to be available in the nation's top 100 cell phone markets. Initial problems with AT&T Wireless' system for porting numbers affected all U.S. cell phone carriers and forced some customers to wait months for their new cell phones to get their old number.

But improvements by the major cell phone carriers have started to pay off. Since February, the FCC reported, complaints from the 2.8 million people that have ported their telephone number have dropped off.

While home phone numbers are being ported to cell phones at growing rates, it's still a small percentage of the overall number. The FCC said that 24,000 people cut the cord and took their old phone number with them in January, and 79,000 in March.

"Hopefully, we've learned a lot from the first rollout," said FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy. "I have no doubt we will see some rise in complaints, but nevertheless, we've learned a lot and the technical solutions are out there."

Nonetheless, Steve Largent, chief executive of cell phone trade group Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, said these state rulings will create future "confusion" for carriers.

State regulators are facing a barrage of pressure to change their minds, or rule against any of the hundreds of other pending waiver requests. The FCC on Thursday denied a pending waiver request from a rural carrier and with it sent the message that any other attempts could be futile, according to a source familiar with the move.

The FCC also recently sent the leading state utility regulators trade group, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), a letter asking members "to think hard" about granting future waivers, according to those familiar with the FCC letter. A NARUC representative did not comment for this story.

Chariton isn't having any second thoughts about its move, according to a carrier employee who requested anonymity. Come May 24, it only plans to port telephone numbers to Verizon Wireless customers, because it has the necessary agreements in place. But "we won't be doing" the other major wireless carriers, the employee said.