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Rural roadblock awaits cell phone switchers

Two events Thursday will highlight how cell phone customers in rural areas probably won't be allowed to switch providers and keep their telephone numbers any time soon.

Two high-profile events Thursday will highlight the likelihood that many U.S. cell phone subscribers in rural areas won't be able to switch carriers and keep their old phone number starting May 24.

In a nod to the technical challenges its number portability mandate presented, the Federal Communications Commission gave cell phone service providers in rural areas a year longer than it allowed to cell phone carriers in the 100 major U.S. markets to comply with FCC number portability rules.

But on Thursday, less than two weeks before the extended time elapses, it'll become apparent it wasn't enough, say industry insiders. FCC commissioners begin their monthly meeting Thursday with an update of the rural portability situation. They are expected to learn that 90 of these service providers are already out of compliance with the FCC rules.

"Don't expect passing grades," said one industry insider familiar with Thursday's planned presentations.

Also Thursday, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association will describe how traditional phone companies in rural areas want to exploit a legal loophole to avoid offering number portability. On May 24, landline phone companies must also begin letting customers keep their old numbers when changing to cell phones providers.

About 900 rural landline providers have asked state regulators to be excused from offering number portability, according to the FCC. At a press event Thursday, the CTIA will ask state regulators to not grant the waivers.

Verizon Wireless supports the effort. "A patchwork of noncompliant or excused carriers will...undermine the consumer protection and competition benefits," a Verizon Wireless representative said.

Representatives from the National Associations of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the were not immediately available for comment.