New York Times Interviews Omar Wasow: New Rules May Set Off a Cellphone Scramble

November 23rd, 2003

New York Times

By LYNNLEY BROWNING
Published: November 23, 2003

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FOR Omar Wasow, an Internet company executive who lectures about technology and has served as Oprah Winfrey’s on-the-air technology expert, few things are as valuable as his cellphone number.

”I’ve got five years of people who’ve been calling me on it, and I’ve got enough business relationships that I don’t want to lose them,” said Mr. Wasow, 32, the executive director of BlackPlanet.com, a Web site that caters to African-Americans.

So he and many other cellphone users have been eagerly awaiting tomorrow, when a federal policy takes effect allowing people to keep their existing phone numbers when changing cellphone providers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. (A full list of the eligible cities and towns can be found on the Web site of the Federal Communications Commission, www.fcc.gov.)

The new portability policy will let cellphone users hold onto their current numbers when taking advantage of cheaper or better service from other carriers. But it will also allow someone who decides to disconnect a land-line home phone to keep that number after switching to a cellphone.

For several months, Mr. Wasow said, he has wanted to switch from his current wireless carrier, AT&T Wireless, to Sprint PCS, because Sprint has what he calls ”a better data network” for transmitting large numbers of text and photo files faster, something he does often in his job. Noting his frequent long-distance calling, he said Sprint now offered a cheaper calling plan.

”This tips it,” he said of the F.C.C.’s new rules.

According to recent industry surveys, as many as a quarter of the nation’s estimated 154 million cellphone users are ready to switch to competing providers if they can keep their current phone numbers.

The regulations are setting off a new round of jockeying in an already highly competitive industry. The six major wireless carriers have been heavily promoting new calling plans in recent weeks, and some are rolling out features to lure more customers. Sprint’s ”walkie-talkie” service, for example, allows customers to communicate without dialing phone numbers.

But even the most technologically knowledgeable subscribers may not yet fully understand how the regulations will work in practice.

When asked what he needed to do to change providers, Mr. Wasow said, ”I have no idea — I assume I just call Sprint.”

That is one step.

The F.C.C. has broadly said that phone companies will need only two and a half hours to switch a customer over to a new provider while preserving their phone number, that consumers will need to buy a new telephone because different carriers use different technologies and that a subscriber who is ready to switch should have a recent telephone bill on hand, to provide detailed information to the new carrier.

Nevertheless, customers may encounter delays and obstacles.

”Two and a half hours is misleading — we intend to do it in a day or less,” said Daniel Wilinsky, a spokesman for Sprint PCS. He explained that the process involved two phone companies with different technological systems trying to work together.

Adam Vital, a vice president for wireless operations at Cingular Wireless, agreed: ”It could be two and a half hours to a day. This is a completely new experience for all the carriers.”

For businesses that want to switch multiple telephone numbers from several wireless carriers, the wait could be more than a day, according to Verizon Wireless. And subscribers wanting to transfer land-line numbers to cellphones could wait four days or more, Verizon Wireless executives said in a conference call with reporters this month.

Customers who are considering a switch may not want to race out tomorrow to do so. AT&T Wireless advises on its Web site (www.attwireless.com/lnp) that ”transferring numbers will become easier with time, so you may want to wait for the dust to settle before you consider making a move.”

Because phone carriers are using mostly automated processes to make the changes, an aspiring switcher must provide the new carrier with the same information that appears on the customer’s current bills. Customers who use middle initials, for example, could face delays if they do not mention that to their new providers.

Many cellphone users say they cannot afford to be without their phones for a day, let alone two to four days. With that in mind, some wireless providers are offering stop-gap measures. Nextel, for example, will give a new subscriber a temporary new number for the new phone until the old number is switched over — or ”ported” over, in phone company terminology.

The temporary number is for emergency use; it automatically disconnects when the subscriber’s old number is activated on the Nextel network, said Diane Rainey, a Nextel spokeswoman.Other companies say a customer’s old phone, and number, will work until the new one is activated — an important feature if a caller needs to dial 911 in an emergency.

Indeed, some subscribers may find themselves temporarily juggling phones. At Verizon Wireless, for example, customers who walk out of a store with a new cellphone and a new Verizon service contract will immediately be able to make, but not receive, calls from the new phone.

The new portability regulations come with some restrictions. Toll-free numbers or pager numbers cannot be transferred, for example.

And the convenience of keeping an old number carries a price. Buying a new cellphone can cost anywhere from $40 to more than $400. Consumers who switch services may have to pay a fee of $200 or more to terminate their old contract early.

Phone companies have spent tens of millions of dollars over the past year on marketing services, on upgrading their networks and systems for the shift and on hiring and training new staff, and customers should expect them to recoup their costs eventually, in the form of higher future rates and monthly fees. Some providers, like Cingular Wireless, are already charging a monthly ”cost recovery fee,” ranging from 25 cents to $1.32.

Consumers may also have other issues to face.

”You have to think about what you’re going to do for your Internet connection,” said Mark N. Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group. Mr. Cooper pointed out that customers with D.S.L. broadband access would not want to give up a land-line phone at home in favor of going completely wireless if the D.S.L. worked through that line.

And not all providers can automatically transfer a customer’s programmed, regularly called numbers to a new phone. Mr. Vital of Cingular said his company could do so, by using a device that connects to the old phone when the customer is in a retail store buying a new phone or switching providers.

The geographic limitations should be considered, too. Consumers outside the 100 largest metropolitan areas — say, in rural Vermont — will have to wait six months, until May 2004, to make any switches that preserve their old numbers.

BUT the portability rules will give many consumers more freedom to shop around while sticking with a string of digits that, for practical or sentimental reasons, have become a part of their lives.

Pauline Jones-Luong, an assistant professor of political science at Yale, has used her Boston-area cellphone number for nearly five years, even though she moved from Cambridge, Mass., to New Haven more than three years ago.

”I see no reason to switch,” she said. ”A lot of people call me from Boston, and it’s a local call for them.”

Christy Haubegger, 35, the founder of Latina magazine and now a film producer, moved to Los Angeles from New York in February to be co-producer of a movie called ”Spanglish” for Columbia Pictures. A customer of Sprint PCS, she says that she has no plans to change her old New York cellphone number to a local Los Angeles number.

”It’s part of my identity out here,” Ms. Haubegger said. ”It’s also part of my own reluctance to accept the fact that I no longer live in New York. At least my cellphone still lives there.”