- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday said consumers soon will be allowed to switch their home phone number to their cell phone, making it easier to drop land-line service.

The regulatory agency said wireless carriers in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, including Washington, must begin supporting “local number portability,” which allows people to switch phones without switching numbers, starting Nov. 24.

The FCC previously had said it would require number portability for cell phones, but yesterday reaffirmed that home phone numbers, also known as wireline numbers, also would apply. Smaller areas must implement the program within six months.

The FCC and consumer advocates say the requirement will increase competition among phone providers, which could lead to lower prices.

“After today it’s easier than ever to cut the cord,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement. “By firmly endorsing the customers’ right to untether themselves from the wireline network — and take their telephone line with them — we act to eliminate impediments to competition between wireless and wirelines services.”

In the past several years, wireless phones have become increasingly popular, replacing home phones as the primary phone for many. But analysts say few choose to drop wireline service altogether because they fear losing a phone number that they have given out to family, friends and co-workers.

“There’s both the economic cost of a new number — having to print new business cards, having to potentially contact everyone who might have your phone number — and massive inconvenience,” Chris Murray, legislative counsel to Consumers Union, told the Associated Press.

The number of land-line phones has declined by 5 million, or 3 percent, since 2000, according to the FCC.

Cell phones make up 43 percent of all U.S. phones, up from 37 percent in 2000, the International Telecommunication Union says.

Switching phone numbers from one wireless carrier to another takes only a few hours at most, companies said. The FCC has suggested it should take no more than three hours once a consumer requests the switch.

Moving a number from a wireline to wireless phone could take several business days, particularly if more than one phone line is involved. Customers will not be allowed to have the same phone number for both wireless and wireline phones.

Those who move from one area to another will not be allowed to keep their phone numbers. Someone moving from Chicago to the District, for instance, will not be permitted to transfer his Chicago home phone number to a cell phone in Washington.

Now that customers will be allowed to drop home phone lines and switch to cell phones without changing numbers, wireless companies have increased advertising. Many offer free phones and discounted rates, as well as incentives to change wireless providers.

The FCC yesterday did not require companies to allow the transfer of wireless numbers to land-line phones. Commissioners said the architecture of wireless networks as well as regulations make such a switch too difficult now. But commissioners said technology upgrades and changes to state rules could well make it easier.

“Although, in the short term, wireline carriers will have more limited opportunities to benefit from [number portability] than wireless carriers will, I was simply not willing to block consumers from taking advantage of the porting opportunities that are technologically feasible today,” Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy said.

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