November 24, 2003 5:29 PM PST

Carrier switches get mixed results

New federal rules that let cell phone customers keep their old numbers after switching carriers debuted with mixed results Monday, with some service providers encountering glitches and others reporting long lines.

Under the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) portability mandate, customers can switch their telephone number from their landline or cellular phone service provider to a new cellular company. While the rule creates more competition among carriers, it gives customers greater freedom in choosing a phone provider without fear of losing their existing number.

"I've had the same number for nine years, first with Pacific Bell and then Cingular after they acquired them," said Carlos Quintero, one of a handful of customers at a San Francisco Cingular store, who indicated he would be shopping around for a new cellular provider once his contract expires. "Cingular has had me in lockdown mode. They've given me horrible service and knew there was nothing I'd do because I didn't want to switch my number. But now, they've recently become more accommodating."

Not all cell phone subscribers, however, were considering a change based on the portability rule.

"I'm thinking of changing carriers, but it's not because of portability," said Bob Meyer, who has been an AT&T Wireless customer for roughly three years. "My contract with AT&T is expiring in a month, and I'm looking at other family plans."

Cellular phone carriers reported varying degrees of increased online sales and foot traffic at stores.

"We extended the store hours for the holidays, and some areas opened up as early as 7 a.m.," said Kurt Meyers, a store manager at Verizon Wireless in San Francisco. "We had some people standing in line, even before we opened."

Nationwide, Verizon expects to see an increase in sales of two to four times over the same period last year.

Cingular, meanwhile, said sales traffic in its stores has been heavier than anticipated for the first day of portability, but most of its customers have been making the switch via the company's Web site, said Will Davis, a company spokesman.

T-Mobile has seen a significant increase in foot traffic at some stores, while others have registered only a slight uptick, said Bryan Zidar, a T-Mobile spokesman.

"It hasn't been as crowded as I thought it would be," said one employee at a T-Mobile store who declined to be named. "I think people have read about the potential potholes and decided to stay away for a few days. Most people have come in to ask questions about portability and seem willing to wait a few days."

Delays and fees
And for some, that's been a wise move. The T-Mobile employee said his store is experiencing a glitch that prevented sales representatives from activating a switch from their computers. Instead, transfers had to be called into a T-Mobile support number and manually entered.

Zidar, T-Mobile's spokesman, said: "We knew going into portability that the process would need fine-tuning as we went along. We found, over the course of the day, an area that, if enhanced, would improve the automated porting process."

T-Mobile's switches took from two to 24 hours after a customer made the request, while Verizon, which also experienced some glitches, experienced a range of as little as 45 minutes to up to 24 hours.

Phone carriers offered customers suggestions on several precautions they should take when transferring their phone numbers.

Zidar, for example, said customers should not cancel their existing service before the switch has actually gone through. Otherwise, customers will lose the use of their phone number, and it can't be transferred to the new service.

Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless said it will soon charge subscribers 40 cents a month to fund "ongoing costs" of letting cell phone subscribers keep old telephone numbers after switching carriers.

The new charge will be reflected in a monthly federal regulatory fee Verizon collects from all 36 million subscribers. The new rate, 45 cents a month, takes effect in March, company spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said.

Federal regulatory fees collected by most cell phone providers are meant to fund the work necessary to meet FCC orders like the local number portability mandate that just went into effect. They range from 32 cents to $1.50. These are separate surcharges from a federal tax that subsidizes 911 emergency service and the federal Universal Service Fund, which helps spread telephone lines into rural areas.

Nelson said a "substantial portion" of the extra $170 Verizon collects annually will pay for the "ongoing costs" of porting cell phone telephone numbers. The balance of the increase represents "smaller" gains in the amount Verizon collects to meet the federal E-911 and number-pooling mandates.

BellSouth wants to charge monthly fees to recover the $38 million it spent to allow customers to keep their old telephone numbers after switching to a cell phone provider.

Since May 1999, the carrier has been charging subscribers 35 cents a month for network upgrades needed to provide "number porting," a service that lets customers defect to another landline phone company. BellSouth now wants to collect a similar porting fee for customers who switch their numbers to cell phones, according to a filing Monday with the FCC.

CNET News.com's Ben Charny contributed to this report.

 

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