Cell phone companies launch marketing blitz to take advantage of new rules on keeping numbers

Monday, November 24th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Phone company ads proclaimed ``Bring your number up to speed'' and ``Your number on America's best wireless network'' as new rules went into effect Monday letting consumers switch cell phone service without switching their phone numbers.

The long-awaited rule change, which some called ``wireless emancipation,'' has set off a marketing blitz by cell phone companies, fearful of losing their customers and anxious to snare new ones from rivals.

Forecasts vary, but millions of cell users are expected to switch wireless services over the next year now that they can do so without the hassle of losing their phone numbers and giving out new ones.

``We're seeing some survey data that suggests some 21 percent of the population with cell phones may be interested in doing that,'' the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, said on CBS's ``The Early Show.''

``You can already see carriers competing very aggressively to get those new consumers,'' he said.

The nation's two biggest providers, Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless, reported brisk activity at stores and on sales phone lines.

The new federal regulations also allow consumers to move their home landline phone number to a cellular phone.

TSI Telecommunication Services Inc., a company that serves as intermediary for the process of switching from one company to another, brought on 200 additional workers to handle the expected workload.

``We've heard estimates as high as 9 million on day one,'' TSI spokeswoman Helen Harris said. ``We believe it will be more in line with 1 million, and we have engineered our systems to handle more than the anticipated volumes.''

But if the number of requests approaches millions, she said, ``It's reasonable to expect some hiccups on day one with an implementation of this magnitude.''

Carriers such as Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile hired hundreds of people to deal specifically with the new rules.

Although the FCC has set a target of 2 1/2 hours for cell carriers to complete the transfer of a number to a rival, experts and most of the companies say the process is likely to take at least a day at first. The number transfer from a landline to a cell phone will take about four business days, Powell said.

``We'll be a heck of a lot better at this on Dec. 30 than on Nov. 30,'' said Howard Waterman, a Verizon spokesman.

Martin Dunsby, an analyst with the consulting firm inCode Telecom Group, said that it could take weeks before the process is ``seamless and speedy'' and that problems will persist much longer.

Powell advised consumers who are considering changing carriers to compare services.

``There's going to be a dizzying array of choices here,'' he said.

Cell phone users also need to review their current contracts to be prepared for any fees that may be charged for getting out of service contracts early.

The process to change companies is easy, Powell said. ``You just contact the new carrier you want to switch to and they're responsible for handling the rest.''