FCC delays requirement allowing cell phone customers to transfer numbers when they change companies

Tuesday, July 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Cell phone users will have to wait longer to keep their phone numbers when they switch carriers, federal regulators decided Tuesday.

The Federal Communications Commission for the third time extended the deadline requiring carriers to allow consumers to keep their numbers. The new date is Nov. 24, 2003, one year later than the previous deadline.

Congress said in 1996 that people can keep their traditional local phone numbers when they change phone companies. The FCC said that year that wireless carriers also would have to offer ``number portability.''

Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless are among the major cell phone companies opposing the requirement, citing cost and technical hurdles. But others, such as Nextel Communications and San Diego-based Leap Wireless, support the measure as a way for them to gain customers.

The FCC decision Tuesday was prompted by a request from Verizon Wireless, which petitioned the commission last year to eliminate the requirement. Much of the wireless industry supported the petition.

The four FCC commissioners denied the petition, but had to compromise on the length of the extension.

Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said she wanted a delay that stretched into 2004 to give companies more time and to avoid draining their resources. Commissioner Michael Copps said he wanted a shorter delay.

About 137 million Americans subscribe to cell phone services and about a third change carriers each year, according to industry figures.

Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said those numbers show that not being able to keep phone numbers is not preventing people from switching.

``Competition is alive and well,'' Larson said before the decision. His industry group supported eliminating or delaying the FCC requirement.

But consumer advocates say not being able to retain numbers is one of the biggest barriers preventing even more cell phone users from switching in search of better service and prices.

``The idea that this won't benefit consumers is ludicrous,'' said Chris Murray, an attorney for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

Gilbert Crowell, an agricultural products salesman from San Marcos, Calif., said not being able to keep his cell phone number hurts his ability to do business.

``They hold you hostage,'' he said. ``I'm wedded to AT&T now and if I decide Verizon or somebody else has a better deal for me I have to go through some horrendous process of attempting to get people to know my new cell phone number.''

The wireless industry estimates that implementing portable numbers will cost more than $1 billion in the first year and $500 million each year after that.

``Maybe consumers would prefer that money be spent in building up networks, filling in dead spots and reducing busy signals,'' Larson said.

Larson said the portability requirement was originally intended to increase competition among traditional wireline carriers and should not apply to wireless services, which already have a competitive market.

In 1996, the FCC required that wireless companies let cell phone users keep their numbers in the top 100 U.S. cities by June 1999. But the agency gave the carriers extensions, setting the deadline for later this year.

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.