Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2003 / 4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

DON'T sign that dotted line for that cell phone | (KRT) Freeze!

Drop the pen and move away from the contract.

This is not the time to sign a new cellular phone deal, especially any that has an "early termination" fee of $100 to $200.

Not until you know your new, stronger bargaining position.

(I know, I know, more and more they're called "mobile" or "wireless" phones, but you know what I mean: pocket, purse, backpack, and car phones.)

Because as of Nov. 24, you CAN take it with you.

Your cell phone number, that is.

That's right: you'll be free to roam about the phone industry.

And sadly, fewer than half the cell phone users know. Which means the cell phone companies might, just might - accidentally I'm sure - take advantage of that ignorance by signing people to new long-term deals right about now, deals that aren't as sweet as they should be.

And that's a shame, because portability will mean more competition, which should mean better deals from all the cell companies.

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If you're not happy with how much you're paying MegaWireless, or upset with their customer service, or bothered by constantly dropped calls in places where you need to be available, or crave some fancy new phone that they don't offer, then you'll be free to switch to HyperMobile, without changing your phone number.

And that's a big deal for most people. Having to change phone numbers is often, all by itself, enough to keep people glued to a company they have learned to loathe.

Individuals don't like the idea of having to call a dozen relatives and a hundred friends to say "hey, I've got a new number." And they're afraid of losing their link to resumes, memberships, and other documents.

Small businesses cringe at the cost of reprinting stationery and signs and remaking websites, followed by calling customers to say "our number has changed." And they know there's no way to call potential customers with the change, to get to those people looking at old ads or listings and let them know "hey, we're still in business, just with a different phone number." The expense of changing numbers can easily outweigh the immediate savings of switching to a new phone plan.

The cell phone companies liked the "lock-in" of numbers, naturally, because it meant a big barrier to customers saying "Good riddance." Software companies use file formats to the same effect, to tie their customers down. I believe such companies treat their customers a little like roaches - so they build roach motels where customers can check in, but can't check out. They certainly don't want to depend on the quality of service to keep customers loyal.

That's all going to be history now, and not because of the generosity of the cell phone companies. Not because they got together and said, "You know, this will only truly be a free market, one where customers can take their business wherever they like, with full competition on the merits of price and service, if we allow our customers to keep their numbers."

No, it didn't happen like that. The companies fought against this portability. They said it was technically impossible. They said it would be incredibly expensive. They said it was unfair.

But they lost. It was government regulation that won the battle for your freedom: bureaucrats and legislators were your champions, along with consumer-activist groups. They demanded portability - although it took years and years to set a deadline.

Oh, they weren't hard on HyperMobile and MegaWireless. They let companies charge a "wireless number portability" or WNP fee to cover the extra expense of letting numbers come and go. In fact, if you look at your past cell phone bills, you'll probably find that you've been charged that fee for a while. Funny that: you're paying the fee month after month without yet having the portability.

At least the result should be some serious competition. If your cell company knows it can lose you, it might work harder to keep you. Instead of focusing only on the novelty of new phones with color screens and built-in cameras, it might just improve connections and service. It might even - shocking as it is to executive ears - cut prices.

It's clear that the introduction of PCS mobile phones a few years ago, to compete with the older cellular technology, led to big price cuts. When six companies offered wireless service in an area, prices were lower than when just two companies were competing.

And that could happen again, now that the competition won't just be "how do we get people to sign up in the first place, because we know then that they'll be stuck with us" but "how do we get people to join us and stay with us for the long term." It's almost always cheaper for a business to try to keep current customers than to find new ones, so maybe more money will pour into service departments instead of into television ads. (If you're a current customer, some jingly ad isn't going to convince you that your bill is just right or your service on target. Only real improvements will do that. But the ad just might seduce a new customer who has little way of knowing the truth about the connection quality and service.)

You'll see offers for more free minutes, lower roaming rates, discounts on new phones, maybe even subtler - but important - changes such as more hours defined as "nights and weekends" and fewer as the more-expensive "peak" periods. Overall rates could drop 30 percent to 40 percent.

And the portability story gets even better, thanks again to those legislators and bureaucrats. They demanded that this number portability extend to regular phones, the landline, use-in-the-house, old-fashioned, stationary type phones. You'll have the right to transfer your current landline number to a cell phone, or from your cell phone to a landline.

People won't have to pay for forwarding services anymore, having their landline calls automatically follow to their cell phones. They can just use one number for both. Some people may choose to give up on landline service entirely, moving their current number to a cell phone.

It's time for everyone with a phone to call their phone company and say: what are you willing to do to keep me? Even if you haven't been considering changing phone companies, now's the time to bargain for a better deal.

Keep in mind while you do that only the top 100 metropolitan areas have to go portable on Nov. 24. The rest of the country is mandated by May of next year. Large corporations with lots of phones and big worries about any interruption in service to customers might want to wait until May, anyway, to make sure any bugs are shaken out of the system.

Keep in mind also that different phone companies will interpret the new rules differently, especially the part about landline numbers. All will make cell phone numbers portable. But the landline rules only require portability if your number is within the same local geographic area. And your cell phone number might be officially part of a Local Calling Area of LCA that's some distance from your home. Some phone companies say they'll make the landline changes everywhere they offer phone service. Others won't go beyond the absolute requirements of the law. Ask your company what they'll do and tell them you'll lean toward a company that will be flexible.

Finally, keep in mind that you may have to buy a new cell phone to use this new freedom. That's not such bad news, and a free phone will be a common offer from the cell companies anyway. But it's kind of a shame our bureaucrats didn't manage to create a single cell phone standard so that any phone would work with any cell phone company. Europe has that and it gives them competition we should envy.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services