Phone carriers brace for service-swapping rush

America's cell phone subscribers can now keep their old telephone numbers when they switch carriers.

Ben Charny
Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
2 min read
Beginning Monday, America's cell phone subscribers can keep their old telephone numbers after switching carriers.

Cell phone providers have spent years gearing up for what is expected to be a tumultuous three months, when an estimated 30 million subscribers will swap wireless carriers for a better monthly plan or coverage area.

The Federal Communications Commission ordered landline and cell phone companies to port telephone numbers in 1996. Landline phone companies complied in 1998. After years of delay, cell phone providers have all said they will implement number portability starting Monday.

Landline phone companies are bracing for an increase in the number of customers dropping their home phone lines in favor of using only a cell phone. Market analysts PriMetrica and consultants Ernst & Young believe half of all America's residential phone customers will consider "cutting the cord" because their home phone number can now be transferred to a cell phone.

Telephone company executives expect fewer problems than cell phone companies, partly because landline phone companies already let customers keep their old numbers when switching to other landline providers.

"Our whole world is not changing," Verizon Communications spokeswoman Briana Gowing said.

As with any new services, there will undoubtedly be problems. It remains to be seen if cell phone carriers, as promised, can port telephone numbers to each other in less than three hours. And cell phone providers require new customers to buy cell phones.

Taking your number with you
With consumers now able to move
their phone numbers between networks,
carriers must shift their focus from the
network to the customer.

Experts think that moving telephone numbers from landline phone companies to cell phone providers is a likely candidate for glitches as well. Landline companies port telephone numbers using a "fax and phone-call system" that involves "a large amount of paperwork," said John Rego, chief financial officer of Internet phone service Vonage, which already offers number portability.

"It takes about 15 days to happen," Rego said. "I can easily say it'll be an arduous process."

An SBC Communications representative said the carrier has prepared for Monday's process. In fact, he added, SBC plans to exceed the requirements of the FCC rules.

There are still legal challenges to the FCC rules that allow the swapping of telephone numbers between wireless and landline phone companies.

A telephone industry trade group, the United States Telecom Association, said Friday that the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia, has decided to consider the group's emergency request to stop wireline-to-wireless porting.

The rules, however, will still take effect Monday. The court doesn't intend to make a final decision until after Thanksgiving, according to a telecom association representative.