NEW YORK -- Change wireless carriers and your cellular telephone number disappears like a butterfly in the fall chill. Must it be that way?
Not if the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is carried out as intended.
The Federal Communications Commission has given wireless companies until November to let customers take numbers with them when they switch carriers. But the biggest wireless companies, who have fought the FCC mandate for years, are now asking the FCC to banish the idea, or at least further delay it.
The companies say so-called "local number portability" would help customers defect to other carriers and divert investments needed to bolster networks and introduce high-speed services.
"There's a billion dollars to spend," said Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, an industry advocacy group. "Do you want to spend it on an unneeded regulatory idea or to improve service?"
A majority of CTIA's member carriers, including Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless, are against the FCC requirement.
But two companies -- Nextel Communications and San Diego's Leap Wireless -- support number portability, figuring they'll gain customers.
The FCC is expected to rule on the request, first made by Verizon, within a month or two.
Telecom experts expect the industry to win another delay, but doubt the FCC will completely drop the mandate first stipulated in the 1996 law.
"The question is whether it's a short delay of six months, or longer, like 18-24 months," said Lawrence Krevor, Nextel's vice president for government affairs.
Portability, which was supposed to have been implemented in the top 100 U.S. cities by June 1999, is a reality in Britain, Australia and Hong Kong.
The FCC gave the carriers a first extension in 1999 that expired in March 2000. The current extension, which ends Nov. 24, is the second.
Consumer advocates say portability -- which removes one of the biggest hurdles between switching carriers -- is a great way to improve carriers' responsiveness and service, along with competition.
By making it easier to switch, consumers will migrate to companies with the best service or price, leaving a jilted company to catch up -- or else.
"Customers who want to switch carriers would be more likely to do so if they didn't have to get a new telephone number," said David Butler, spokesman for the Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.
Tom Bliley, a retired Virginia congressman who oversaw the 1996 Telecommunications Act, said the wireless companies are fighting portability "as a way to maintain a captive audience."
"They've got you, just as they've got me," Bliley said. "It'd be a pain to change and get a new cell phone number."
Instead of blocking the requirement, wireless companies ought to fix the problems that force customers to leave in the first place -- usually bad service, said Charles Golvin, a telecom analyst at Forrester Research.
Number portability could potentially help wireless providers steal customers from wireline carriers by allowing them to transfer their principal home telephone number to a cellular phone, Golvin said.
"The big wireless operators are missing the point," Golvin said. "They should be seizing the opportunity."
Carrier advocates say switching carriers is already so common that the so-called "churn rate," or number of customers who either drop or switch their service, has surpassed 30 percent per year, according to the CTIA.
"People change carriers all the time," said Sprint PCS spokesman James Fisher. "Not taking your number with you is not a deterrent."
For Marcie Gunsberg, 32, of West Orange, N.J., who switched from Verizon Wireless to AT&T Wireless, then returned to Verizon last year, "the pain in the butt was having to change numbers three times in a year."
Gunsberg said she'd have gladly taken her old number with her. Instead, she notified friends by e-mail, missed a few calls and even had trouble remembering her own number.
"Even if there was a $25 one-time fee, I'd have done that," Gunsberg said.
For a person who uses a cell phone for business, changing a phone number isn't taken lightly -- especially since most carriers don't allow a person who drops service to leave a forwarding message for errant callers, as wireline carriers do.
The CTIA's Wheeler said it would cost carriers tens of millions of dollars each in the first year for hardware and software to implement number portability. A central database would need to be created that would track all cellular customers' names, numbers and carriers while redirecting calls and billing information.
Setting up the database and connecting all wireless carriers would be difficult to accomplish by the FCC's current deadline, said Nextel's Krevor.
Others, like Bliley and Butler, say the process isn't so hard. Bliley estimates the cost of number portability at 15 cents a month, per customer.
"We suspect the big carriers are exaggerating the cost in order to hold onto their customers," Butler said.
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