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Consumers making the switch: 8.5 million in first year, says association

Number portability turning out to be positive for industry

In the first year after the Federal Communications Commission required telephone companies to allow customers to take their numbers with them when choosing a new carrier, an estimated 8.5 million Americans ported from one carrier to another, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

The one-year anniversary of telephone number portability was November 24, 2004. The switches where people took their existing number to a new carrier included both cell-to-cell company transfers, and people who “cut the cord” making a switch from land lines to cellular.

Jim Richmond, director of corporate sales for Cellular South in Jackson, said number portability has definitely been good for the industry. Consumers have also benefited.

“In the old days, if you went to another carrier, one of the biggest negatives was getting a new cell phone number that you had to get out to everyone,” Richmond said. “From a business standpoint, companies that were promoting that cell phone number and wanted to choose another wireless carrier didn’t want to lose their number. Number portability opened more opportunities for consumers. Now they have the choice of taking their existing number with them if they want to try another carrier.”

Improving competition

Besides the advantage of giving people yet another incentive to “cut the cord,” Richmond said number portability has been really good for consumers because it improves competition. Cell phone companies have to make sure that their coverage, reliability and customer service are good in order to compete in a marketplace where customers can easily leave if they aren’t satisfied.

“One important fact with porting is that once you port a number, you have 30 days to change your mind,” Richmond said. “You can try another carrier to make sure they offer the coverage you want and meet your needs. You have a safety net. It is certainly a win-win situation for consumers, and it forces industry to stay on its toes. Obviously, we already have a very competitive industry, but now that customers can take their phone numbers as well, it forces us to stay on top of our game and be extremely aggressive.”

Cellular companies are continuing to cut costs for long distance. For example, Cellular South, a Mississippi-owned and -operated company that is one of the largest regional carriers, offers unlimited nationwide long distance for $10 per month. Unlimited long distance with land lines probably averages at least three times that amount.

About a month ago Ford Motor Company announced that it is going wireless at its big corporate offices.

“Ford is going to a strictly wireless-type environment,” Richmond said. “That is a sign that even in the big-business world they are looking at cutting the cord. What has really helped is the rates for long-distance wireless are so low. Costs have really come down. When you can get the unlimited long distance feature for $10 per month to call basically anywhere in the country, why would you pay long distance on your land line? A lot of smaller businesses are doing away with the land line.”

Routine matter

Calie Shackleford, spokesperson for Cingular Wireless, said number portability has quickly become a routine matter for the industry.

“It happens quickly and easily for customers,” Shackleford said. “When it was first introduced, there was a lot of fanfare and analysts were predicting these dramatic porting volumes. But we didn’t really see that — a lot of people jumping ship. Basically, once all the carriers had a few weeks of experience with it, the process was very smooth. It is easy and convenient for customers. So, that has been an advantage.”

Shackleford agrees that the 30-day guarantee is a hit with customers. And she said that since Cingular’s merger with AT&T, the company has the largest digital and voice data network in America.

“Also, we have the largest mobile-to-mobile calling community at 49 million people,” Shackleford said. “If you have the mobile-to-mobile feature on your calling plan, you can call all other Cingular customers and not be charged for those minutes. With 49 million customers, that is a really great incentive. We also offer rollover minutes.”

Shackleford recommends that when porting your number to a new carrier, bring in a bill from your current carrier. That allows the new company to make sure all the information is correct (i.e., that the name is spelled correctly and the account number is right).

“It makes the transition a lot smoother if we can verify the customer information,” she said. “Also, we recommend that people don’t call their current carrier and cancel before they come to us. In the interim, it is possible that your number can be given away. We will handle the whole process for you. We will take care of contacting your other carrier to port the number. That notifies them that you are closing the account.”

Bryan Zidar, spokesperson for T-Mobile, said his company believes number portability has been positive.

“We’re gaining more customers than we are losing due to portability,” Zidar said. “The reason that is the case for T-Mobile is we are one of the fastest-growing carriers with 17 million customers through organic growth, not mergers. The reason we are growing is we are providing great value with the best rate plans, services and features.”

Jimmy Duvall, spokesperson for Verizon Wireless, said number portability has been great.

“Many more customers have decided to come with us because they wanted to have cell phone service that worked — it didn’t drop calls and they could use it when they needed it. We have added a lot of customers. Overall it has been great for our company and the consumer, as well. Previously people were reluctant to change numbers. A company might have the number listed on their letterhead and not want to change it. A new number is cumbersome at best. So they would stay at companies they were not necessarily happy with because they didn’t want to lose their number. Now customers can choose the best value, network coverage and customer service, which is the way it should be.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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