Take your number

April 17, 2003

FED UP with your cell-phone service? Want to pay less? Change carriers? There are plenty of options out there - plenty of competition for your business in the marketplace. But wait, if you switched carriers, you'd probably have to change cell-phone numbers, and wouldn't that be a monumental hassle? Never mind.

That, in a nutshell, is the bind for the 140 million American cell-phone subscribers. It's a state of affairs that serves wireless service providers, not consumers. It's retarding competition and economic efficiency.

And it doesn't have to be.

Technology enabling wireless phone companies to provide portable cell-phone numbers is ready and waiting. Three times since 1999, the Federal Communications Commission has set dates for wireless companies to offer portability in the nation's 100 largest markets, and three times the industry has won delays. On Tuesday, it was back in federal appeals court trying to postpone the latest deadline, Nov. 24 of this year.

In that hearing - triggered by an appeal from a wireless trade group and Verizon Wireless - an industry attorney claimed of portability: "It's very speculative to say this even offers consumer benefits."

Hogwash. Portability would make it easier for cell-phone users to switch companies, inducing even greater nose-to-nose competition, inevitably benefiting consumers. Verizon - having resisted greater competition for its local-phone monopolies, while insisting on competing in the long-distance market - knows all about how this works.

The wireless industry fears portability will raise its customer turnover rate, now at about 27 percent yearly, raising its costs and reducing profits. That's probably true. But in Hong Kong and parts of Europe, where cell-phone users already control their numbers, increased churn rates have tended to level off or revert to pre-portability levels.

This is a small skirmish in a much larger telecommunications revolution, but there's a lot at stake. For the first time since the Great Depression, the number of landlines in this country is falling, due to the wireless explosion. Three percent of all cell-phone users have already dropped their landlines, and under the FCC wireless portability policy, about 10 percent of all landline customers - depending on location - could convert their wired numbers to wireless numbers (to the delight of wireless providers).

So cell-phone number portability is just a step toward a more efficient future in which phone numbers follow customers as they move through their lives. But it's an essential step - one that the FCC must not be prevented from soon carrying out.

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