Jewish World Review June 9, 2003 / 9 Sivan, 5763

Cell phone customers can switch providers, keep old phone number | (KRT) Soon, you may be able to pick a new cellular service without having to change your phone number.

A U.S. Appeals Court upheld Federal Communications Commission rules Friday that would allow consumers to hang onto their numbers regardless who provides their service, beginning Nov. 24.

The decision, which was cheered by consumer groups, could mark the end of a years-long effort by the wireless industry to scuttle the regulations. A trade group said Friday it was not planning a Supreme Court appeal but may continue pressing its case before Congress.

"Consumers have been waiting long enough," said Tim Morstad, a policy analyst with Consumers Union in Austin, Texas. "We hope this decision finally stands after four years of delay. We certainly hope the companies don't make an end run to the legislators at Capitol Hill."

In its unanimous opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the FCC's rules were legally sound and the wireless industry didn't seek legal recourse within the required 60 days.

Wireless companies have complained that necessary software and system upgrades will cost them $1 billion in the first year and $500 million annually thereafter. Furthermore, they say the rules are not needed because a third of all cellular users already change their service every year.

"This is a hyper-competitive industry," said Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. "Certainly number portability isn't going to change that one way or the other."

Experts and consumers challenged that argument.

After Hong Kong allowed users to keep their cellular numbers in 1999, a reported 10 percent of all wireless customers switched service in a month. Before the rule, only about 3.5 percent of users changed companies every month.

In the United States, a Consumers Reports survey of 22,000 wireless users found a third wanted to change providers and a majority hadn't done so because they'd have to get new numbers.

Adam Bren, a Dallas insurance agent, said he has resisted dropping his Sprint PCS service even though he is dissatisfied with it.

"I don't want to have to go to my clients and tell them I have a new phone number," Mr. Bren said. "It's the hassle. It's a lot of work."

Others echoed that sentiment.

"I still get calls from people I've handed out business cards to a year ago," said Ozzie Prado, a real estate agent who was visiting Dallas from Los Angeles Friday. "So, for me to switch my number, it wouldn't be in my best interest."

The FCC rule requires wireless companies to begin exchanging numbers in the top 100 metropolitan areas by Nov. 24 and the rest of the country six months after that.

Even as they lobby against the rules, several companies have begun charging consumers fees to recoup their upgrade costs, said Jessica Zufolo, legislative director for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which represents state regulators in Washington.

Larson said companies have started making the necessary changes. But the industry complained the FCC has not set out the procedures for how numbers will be transferred.

"We need the FCC to come to this decision by Labor Day so that we have a couple of months to make the necessary decisions," he said.

FCC officials said they will issue clarifications well before Nov. 24. The commission will also rule on disputes between local-phone and wireless companies over how and when consumers can move a local-phone number to a mobile device.

Current rules allow for that, but most wireless companies' systems aren't sufficiently ready to accept the numbers, according to the FCC. That should change later this year.

Consumer advocates said the Friday decision will force wireless companies to compete on the quality of their service.

"It's not an infant industry anymore," said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America. "It's time for it to grow up and bear its responsibility. Without number portability, there is not effective competition."

But Verizon Wireless, the nation's biggest wireless company, said the rules could hurt service.

"The resources required to fulfill this new mandate will unnecessarily be redirected from our core business activities: expanding network quality and reach, improving customer service and initiating new services and products," a company statement read.

Critics scoffed at that argument, and said Verizon, which touts its superiority in its "Can you hear me now?" commercials, should benefit from increased competition.

"If their service is so great, they've got nothing to be worried about," Zufolo said.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services