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Porting problems put carrier swaps on hold

Cell phone provider networks are still working out the bugs--and long delays--two months after a mandate that lets subscribers swap carriers and keep their old numbers.

Eight weeks ago, 35-year-old Los Angeles resident Adam Ross dropped his home phone line, provided by SBC Communications, with a plan to go cell phone solo with Sprint PCS.

Like more than a million other U.S. cell phone subscribers since Nov. 24, he took advantage of a Federal Communications Commission rule that lets people keep their old phone number when swapping carriers. Ross' swap still hasn't happened.

Instead, a bug inside the Sprint PCS computer system tells customer service representatives that his number-porting request is being addressed, even though something is clearly wrong, he said. "Sprint ate my cell phone number," Ross said.

While his is an extreme case, it's an example of the problems U.S. cell phone and wireline service providers continue to have with the intricate digital pathways that connect their billing centers to the intercarrier clearinghouses that carriers use to swap telephone numbers. Even though they've had two months to work out problems, U.S. cell phone service providers still tell new customers that it'll take three to five days to complete a carrier swap--far from the 2.5-hour goal they set before the mandate took effect.

"This is a technical and complicated mandate," said Travis Larson, a spokesman for cell phone industry lobbyist Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

One of the big problems is in the way subscribers give their personal information to the new provider; it has caused trouble when differing even slightly from the information given to the previous provider, such as spelling out the word "Street" in a home address instead of abbreviating it, according to David Furth, FCC associate wireless bureau chief. "When that happens, it defaults to a manual process, and that can cause it to take several days," Furth said.

Carriers have tried to resolve the problem by instructing their systems to overlook such differences, and the "Street" vs. "St." problem is one of about a dozen that has been eliminated from the process in the past few weeks, according to Sprint PCS spokeswoman Jennie Walsh.

Wireline and cell phone carriers are having a similar difficulty with "mismatched" information, when their computer systems try to interact, but it is entirely of their own doing, according to Michael O'Brien, a spokesman for TSI Telecommunication Services, an intercarrier clearinghouse operator most of the nation's cell phone service providers use.

For instance, cell phone service providers have developed an automated protocol to deal with missing deadlines. More egregious cases are taken up by an in-house resolution process. But usually, a new date is negotiated between two wireless carriers by trading electronic messages. However, wireline carriers do not have a resolution process, and O'Brien said it appears that they don't have negotiations, either.

"If they get a message from a carrier saying it can't make the deadline, they just confirm the order, change the date to one they make up and send it back," O'Brien said. "It's an industry issue that everyone's now dealing with."

Stress on the system does not seem to be one of the technical problems the providers face. U.S. cell phone providers this week are disclosing that the number of requests is not as overwhelming as expected.

Cingular Wireless on Wednesday said the number of "porting" requests is "below expectations and not a significant factor" in terms of its quarterly financial results. AT&T Wireless on Thursday is expected to debunk initial projections of 10 million subscribers fleeing each month when it announces its quarterly results. The FCC estimates that carriers successfully swapped a million telephone numbers between Nov. 24 and Dec. 31.