- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Consumers should be able to switch their wireless phone company in less than three hours once a new regulation takes effect next month, federal regulators said yesterday.

A long-delayed rule starts in most major cities Nov. 24, allowing cell-phone subscribers to keep their cell phone numbers if they change their wireless providers.

In a new order, the Federal Communications Commission decided unanimously that wireless companies will be “encouraged” to complete the switch for consumers within 2 hours. The FCC isn’t demanding that wireless companies complete the transition within that time frame, but said there appeared to be no hurdles to switching a consumer within the allotted time.

Commissioners reserved the right to fine companies if consumers complain that they can’t switch to a new company quickly.

“Despite the best efforts of the commission and the industry to ensure that wireless [switching] is fully implemented, there is a potential for operational problems to arise,” FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy said.

As many as 12 million wireless subscribers are expected to switch cell-phone providers the first year the new rule takes effect, said Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst at the Boston research firm Yankee Group.

“For wireless companies, it’s the nightmare before Christmas,” he said.

Wireless companies have about 150 million U.S. subscribers.

Customers will switch carriers because they want better rates, better coverage and better customer service, Mr. Entner said.

The FCC tried initially in 1999 to implement the rule allowing subscribers to switch carriers and keep their phone numbers, but it was delayed three times.

“Industry would prefer not to do this. They ran out of luck,” Mr. Entner said.

The largest carriers — Verizon Wireless with 34.6 million subscribers and AT&T; Wireless with 21.5 million customers — said they expect to have no problem switching consumers within 2 hours.

“We recognize that the [cell-phone switching] deadline is approaching, and we intend to meet it. We’re in the final phases of testing our systems with other carriers to ensure the … process works as smoothly as possible,” AT&T; Wireless Vice President Doug Brandon said.

But wireless carriers could have difficulty sorting through issues, including how to transfer billing records.

“It might seem simple, but it’s pretty complicated,” said Chris Doherty, spokesman for Nextel, a Reston company with 11.7 million subscribers. “For instance, everyone has their own billing system. How do you make those systems talk to each other?”

Consumer advocates said there were no hurdles preventing consumers from switching cell-phone carriers.

“There are no real technical barriers standing in the way of consumers being able to keep their cell-phone numbers when they switch providers. The only barrier has been the unwillingness of the cell-phone companies to give consumers what they want,” said Janee Briesemeister, director of the Consumer Union’s EscapeCellHell.org campaign.

Analysts said allowing consumers to keep their phone numbers when they switch carriers will fuel the market for new cell phones because their old phone is unlikely to work on another carrier’s network.

Yankee Group analyst John Jackson said the new cell-phone switching policy will result in the sale of up to 15 million cell phones over the next 12 months.

“The silver lining is really there for the handset manufacturers,” he said.

The FCC also decided yesterday that wireless companies may collect early-termination fees from consumers who switch carriers, but they can’t prevent them from making a switch until they pay off charges.

The FCC still must make a range of decisions related to the new rules, the Cellular Tele-communications and Internet Association said.

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