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FCC: Number-switching rules apply to all

The agency issues an order that requires all landline phone companies to allow customers to transfer their numbers to cell phones when signing up for new services.

Starting this month, telephone customers in the United States must be allowed to transfer their landline number to a cell phone when signing up for new services, the Federal Communications Commission has ruled.

An order issued Monday and supported by all five FCC commissioners requires landline phone companies to make way for what's called "porting" of phone numbers in the nation's largest 100 markets beginning Nov. 24. Similar rules affecting customers who switch between cell phone providers also are set to take effect at that time.

The commission gave carriers serving areas outside these 100 markets until May 2004 to meet the mandate. Under older porting orders, these carriers had to comply by Nov. 24 as well.

On the cellular front, analysts and industry insiders expect a large impact from the mandate, which eliminates what phone customers call the "annoyance tax" of having to make sure every family member, friend or business contact is informed of a number change. The greatest number of defections will be wireless dialers switching to other wireless carriers. In consumer surveys, the nation's wireless dialers typically say that one of the top reasons they stay with their current carrier is the loss of their old number if they make a switch.

But the order isn't expected to be as severe when it comes to landline phones. Less than 5 percent of all U.S. dialers "cut the cord," or drop their landline phones completely and use only a cell phone.

The FCC has required porting for several years, but the telephone industry has managed through lawsuits and other tactics to delay any firm deadline. Monday's order clarifies the remaining questions that carriers had on the policy and is expected to silence the last gasp of protest from landline phone companies.

"By firmly endorsing a customer's right to untether themselves from the wireline network--and take their telephone number with them--we act to eliminate impediments to competition between wireless and wireline services," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a separate statement issued along with the ruling.

Commissioner Kevin J. Martin said he was disappointed by the order's timing, which arrives two weeks before the deadline for carriers to implement it. "The commission has an obligation to minimize the burdens our regulations place on carriers, and I wish we had provided the guidance in this order considerably sooner," he said in a statement.

Landline carrier Qwest International indicated it's likely to file a lawsuit trying to stop the order from taking effect. A Qwest senior vice president, Gary Lytle, characterized the mandate as a "one-way street" that doesn't provide a way for cell phone subscribers to switch back to landline phones and keep their old number. He said in a statement the company was "exploring its legal options."

"Unfortunately, over the long term, customers stand to be the biggest losers with today's announcement," Lytle added.

Some consider it a financially impractical, if not technically impossible, task for cell phone dialers to keep their number when switching to a landline phone. Landline phone companies could be forced to give a San Francisco Bay Area phone number, for example, to someone living in New York City. But the two have different area codes--the geographic clues that traditional phone companies use to route calls on a landline network--and these codes are such an integral part of traditional phone systems that it would take an overhaul of an entire network to fix the problem.