MCI Communications Corp. introduced yesterday what it called a permanent solution to one of the biggest barriers to the emergence of robust competition in the local marketplace -- how to make telephone numbers truly "portable" for consumers who want to switch carriers.
MCI said its plan will permit consumers and businesses to keep all the advanced features they now receive from their current carriers. Some interim number-portability arrangements proposed by telephone companies did not permit the use of such functions as Caller ID.
MCI said the database system developed in its laboratory in Richardson, Texas, is compatible with existing telephone networks such as Bell Atlantic's and could be deployed with minimal cost.
Telephone number portability will be an important issue in Maryland in August when the state Public Service Commission considers rules for interconnecting Bell Atlantic Corp.'s network with those of potential rivals. Those aspiring competitors include MCI's local exchange subsidiary, MCImetro, which has already won approval to compete with Bell Atlantic for local business subscribers.
Maryland is one of the most advanced states in opening its local telephone exchange to competition. As a result, the state will be one of the first two or three where utility regulators will be asked to consider MCI's proposed solution, said Donna Sorgi, MCI's director of regulatory and government affairs.
Currently, telephone numbers are apportioned by a central authority called Bellcore to local telephone companies and cellular carriers, which assign them to users. With true number portability, the numbers would in effect become the property of subscribers, as long as they paid the "rent" and didn't move too far away.
Telecommunications companies that are interested in challenging the telephone monopolies have told regulators that full number portability is essential to the development of true competition in the local telephone market. Yesterday MCI cited Gallup Poll survey results that showed 90 percent of businesses and 80 percent of individuals would not change phone companies if they had to change numbers.
Brad Ramsay, deputy assistant general counsel for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said number portability is especially critical for businesses.
Local telephone companies have maintained they do not have the technological capability to offer true number portability.
But as state and federal officials have sent strong signals that number portability is part of the price phone companies must pay for looser regulation, the carriers have become more receptive to solutions.
Equally vexing to new competitors is the question of cost. Because calls going to the new number have to be routed through the old carrier's switch, incumbent carriers have insisted they must be compensated for the use of their networks.
MCI and other carriers contend such a charge imposes an extra cost on them and tilts the market in favor of the dominant carrier.