Freedom rings for cell phones

Choice: In Baltimore and many other areas, cell phone users win the right Nov. 24 to switch service providers without losing their numbers.

November 06, 2003|By Tamara E. Holmes | Tamara E. Holmes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Crispian Kirk has wanted to change cell phone providers for the past year and a half because of "too many dropped calls and poor customer service" with his current cellular service provider.

But one thing has stopped the 30-year-old Baltimore resident. If he switched cell phone providers, he would be issued a new cell phone number and would have to contact all of the people who have his old number to give them the new information. That task was daunting enough to keep Kirk from making a move.

On Nov. 24, that will all change.

That's because Baltimore is one of the regions that will benefit from wireless local number portability - the ability to switch cell phone providers while keeping the same phone number.

"This whole thing is about giving consumers choice," said Adam Goldberg, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that publishes Consumer Reports. "That's what local number portability does, and our belief is it will create more competition so that you end up with better deals all around."

The move toward number portability in the cell phone industry has been a long time coming. Not surprisingly, it has seen its share of resistance among wireless carriers because it would make switching cell phone providers more practical for consumers, possibly resulting in a loss of customers for carriers. A last-ditch effort to add an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations bill on the Senate floor that would postpone number portability lost steam last week when the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Ted Stevens, an Alaskan Republican, refused to support it.

More competition

But on the flip side, number portability also means wireless carriers have more consumers to go after. An expected all-out war to sign new cell phone users has industry watchers and consumers expecting a blizzard of advertising and money-saving deals throughout the holiday season.

The ramifications of wireless local number portability will be felt for many years, says Roger Entner, program manager of the Yankee Group's Wireless/Mobile Services division. He predicts that between 10 million and 12 million subscribers will switch providers within the first 12 months, with 70 percent of them making the move in the first four months.

"If you're not happy where you are, it's always a good idea if you move on," he said of wireless subscribers who have remained loyal to their cell phone providers just to avoid the hassles that come with changing numbers.

Indeed, Kirk does not intend to waste any time. "I'm switching as soon as the deadline passes," he said.

But the Consumers Union's Goldberg says Kirk and other consumers might want to wait at least a few days to make a switch because deals are likely to get better as the competition heats up and time goes on. Not only that, but consumers locked in one- or two-year contracts could have to fork over a fee if they break their contract to switch providers.

Simple process

Obviously, the industry will see some winners and some losers among carriers once the deadline passes. Research firm In-Stat/MDR predicts that Verizon Wireless will be the biggest winner because it has scored the highest in customer satisfaction among wireless users, according to the firm's studies.

If consumers do decide to make a switch, the process should be painless. Just as phone service providers such as AT&T and Sprint will take care of all the details when consumers change long-distance providers, the new carrier will take care of all the details when it comes to switching wireless providers.

Nevertheless, not all Americans will benefit from the change right away. It goes into effect in only the top 100 metropolitan areas, of which Baltimore is No. 18. Consumers who live outside of the top 100 areas must wait an additional six months.

Likewise, consumers who move to a different state and area code will not be able to keep their numbers. The service works only in local calling areas.

While the change creates choices for consumers, the same rules should apply to choosing a cell phone provider as before, Goldberg warns.

Consumers still must consider such things as "making sure that the plan meets your needs, that you have the right coverage, that you're able to make a good connection when you put a call through, and that you're not facing dead zones right around your home or office," Goldberg said.

And in the long run, carriers might not be able to invest as heavily in the wireless network because they'll have to work harder and spend more money to attract customers, Entner says.

But for the most part, consumers are thrilled to be given additional choices.

"I know so many people who are waiting," Goldberg said. "I have a colleague whose phone has died, and he's [using] his wife's cell phone because he's waiting until November 24th. He's not going to go out and get a new phone when he's going to change carriers.

"And that's what local number portability does, and our belief is it will create more competition so that you end up with those better deals all around," he said.

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