Number portability: Customers should take their time

Customers excited about switching their wireless carriers after number portability went into effect Monday may want to take a breath and take their time.

A new U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule allows wireless phone customers in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas to keep their phone numbers when they switch wireless carriers. Many customers in those areas will also be able to keep their phone numbers when switching from landline telephone service to wireless service. Customers in smaller U.S. markets will have to wait until May 24 before wireless number portability goes into effect for them.

Some problems with porting numbers, including delays of several hours, have been reported since Monday, and customers may also want to wait for holiday deals on wireless service, said Albert Lin, a wireless analyst for American Technology Research Inc. Customers should expect the porting process to take about two and a half hours if there are no problems, according to the FCC.

Customers may want to wait at least until Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when wireless carriers have traditionally begun holiday promotional deals, Lin said. Many customers also have service contracts with their current wireless vendors, and will have to pay penalties to get out of those contracts, warned the FCC.

“A lot of people are still gathering information and shopping around,” Lin said. “The customer who has the luxury of time should wait and shop around and give the industry time to smooth out the bumps.”

Some wireless vendors have had problems with switching, Lin said, although industry-wide statistics aren’t available. “The carriers aren’t talking about their horror stories, only the success stories,” said telecom analyst Jeff Kagan, responding by e-mail to questions from the IDG News Service.

“I’m sure there are problems, but no details, and you can’t even find them standing outside of stores because when they walk out of the store the process is in progress and the breakdown usually occurs in the first half hour or so as the two carriers talk to each other after the customer has left the store.”

Verizon Wireless Inc. reported two to four times its average new customer signups on Monday, said Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman. Tuesday’s traffic was a “steady flow,” he added.

“Day one was a very, very good day for us,” Nelson said. “We’re not going to provide a day-to-day breakdown; our investor relations people would start kicking us.”

Asked if Verizon Wireless had encountered any problems with porting numbers, Nelson said: “Every hour since Monday the whole industry is getting better.”

While Lin said he wouldn’t characterize the first days of porting as “smooth,” number porting software vendor Evolving Systems Inc. sees the process generally working, said George Hallenbeck, Evolving Systems’ chairman and chief executive officer. It’s difficult to tell so far how popular number portability will be, and what kinds of problems customers will see, he said.

“I don’t think we’re going to know for sure how it’s going to be until a couple of weeks from now, because I imagine the volume’s going to pick up over time,” Hallenbeck said.

Both Lin and Kagan advise customers to wait and check out holiday deals from major wireless carriers. Expect more offers from wireless carriers in the first and second quarters of 2004, Kagan said.

“I’d categorize the deals so far as first generation deals: not really hot yet, but enough to sway the early adopter customers who were lined up to make the change on day one,” he said by e-mail. “As these early switchers thin out I think we’ll start to see more aggressive deals. It’s not a price war per se, its creative packaging including more minutes, expanded free hours, and bundles, but, of course, price always plays a role.”

Lin noted some offers now include lower prices, free minutes, expanded weekend and night hours and free phones every year. Before switching, customers should do their research and find the best deal for them, he said.

The FCC and AT&T Wireless Services Inc. also offer other advise if you want to switch carriers while keeping your phone number:

– Check if your current wireless service has an early termination fee. Carriers are not allowed to refuse to transfer a number, however, if a fee or outstanding balance is unpaid.

– Expect to get a new phone if you switch carriers. Many cellular phones don’t work with multiple carriers.

– Don’t cancel your service at your old wireless carrier before you contact the new carrier. Your new carrier will handle the switch, and if you cancel your old service before contacting your new carrier, you’ll likely lose your phone number.

– Have an old wireless bill with you when you contact your new carrier. The new carrier will need to enter your information exactly as it appears on your old bill for the number port to go smoothly.

– Ask your new carrier about recycling your old phone. Some carriers, including AT&T Wireless, can refurbish your old phone or donate it to charity.

– Expect that your new wireless carrier will charge a fee to recover the costs of porting.