Wireless industry argues against letting customers keep cell numbers when switching carriers

Tuesday, April 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Cell phone companies asked a federal court Tuesday to block a regulation that would force them to let consumers keep their phone numbers when switching wireless carriers.

Consumer advocates say not being able to retain numbers is one of the biggest barriers preventing more cell phone users from switching in search of better service and prices. Wireless companies say the Federal Communications Commission requirement and its Nov. 24 deadline will raise costs while doing little to increase industry competition.

``It's very speculative to say this even offers consumer benefits,'' said Andrew McBride, an attorney representing Verizon Wireless and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an industry group.

McBride told the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the FCC overstepped its authority by imposing the requirement.

A court ruling is not expected for several months.

Congress decided in 1996 that people can keep their traditional local phone numbers when they change phone companies. The FCC decided that wireless carriers would have to offer the same service in the top 100 U.S. cities by June 1999.

The FCC has extended that deadline three times, most recently granting a yearlong extension last summer after Verizon Wireless asked the commission to eliminate the requirement.

``Many consumers tell us that they are not satisfied with their wireless service, but they are unwilling to switch because they can't take their numbers with them,'' said Chris Murray, an attorney for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. He said small businesses and self-employed people are particularly harmed when switching carriers because they lose numbers known by their customers.

``Wireless companies will have stronger incentives to provide better service and lower prices if consumers can take their numbers,'' Murray said

Most wireless companies argue that their industry is competitive enough and doesn't need a regulatory boost. They say there are about 145 million U.S. cell phone subscribers and about a third of them change carriers each year.

``The wireless industry is the most competitive telecommunications market on the planet,'' McBride said after the hearing. He said the expense of providing the number switching service will make it harder to provide better cell phone coverage and cheaper phones.

The wireless industry estimates that the requirement will cost more than $1 billion in the first year and $500 million each year thereafter.

Many cell phone users outside the United States, in places such as Britain, Australia and Hong Kong, already have the option of keeping their numbers when they switch carriers.