WLNP conveniences are hassles for wireless users

Mobile carriers in the U.S. have made some dire predictions about how wireless local number portability will affect their bottom lines, but WLNP might ultimately prove problematic for users as well.

Although most Canadian wireless service providers do not offer number portability – the sole exception being Microcell Telecommunications Inc. – a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling requires carriers in the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas to implement WLNP by Nov. 24. Carriers in smaller markets get an extra six months.

Carriers fear the ruling, which allows consumers to keep their cell phone number when they sign up with a new provider, will open the flood gates to customer churn.

Contractual commitments aside, most users have remained loyal to carriers because it’s a hassle to get the word out about a new phone number to friends, family and business associates, not to mention changing business cards.

But WLNP might ultimately prove inconvenient to users, despite their ability to keep their numbers if they switch wireless providers. When you switch, you are in all likelihood also getting a different handset. Fine for voice, but what do you do about the data, contacts, calendar, to-do list, MP3 files, pictures, and possibly custom IT apps?

Four companies I know of offer solutions with varying degrees of usefulness. For most of these applications, swapping data between phones is just part of the package; they also manage data.

The apps are: BVRP Software Mobile PhoneTools, US$59; FutureDial Inc. Cell Phone Service Station, US$250, renewable on a quarterly basis; SmithMicro Software Inc. QuickLink Mobile, US$29.95; Susteen Inc. Universal DataPilot, US$79.95. All of the applications reside on the PC to which you must connect your cell phone.

David Wright, OEM division director at BVRP, and I had a good conversation about the problems associated with transferring data. I learned there is more to the process than meets the eye.

Mapping contacts from one format to another is the first issue that needs to be resolved. For example, some phones support multiple numbers for one name; other phones do not. If the newer phone doesn’t have multiple-number support, BVRP Mobile PhoneTools will repeat the name along with each number. If you don’t like that solution, you can opt out.

Synchronizing calendars and to-do lists is even more troublesome. Transferring this kind of data is only as good as the new phone will support, Wright says. For recurring events, if the new phone doesn’t support it, Mobile PhoneTools transforms the event into multiple single events. With the exception of BVRP, none of the vendors support to-do lists or calendar. However, SmithMicro said the next version, due in December, will support calendar.

If both cell phones are picture phones, users can transfer images manually. However, wallpaper and games are not supported by any of the packages.

Finally, there’s the thorny issue of digital rights management (DRM) and MP3 files. Wright says technically BVRP can transfer MP3 files, but it supports the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) DRM standards, which in fact are embedded in certain devices such as Nokia phones. However, Motorola gives BVRP access to its control management code, and Motorola does allow users to manually transfer an MP3 file from their PC to a phone.

DRM is a very dicey topic. The rules are still vague, but it seems to me if they are your files, you should be able to put them wherever the heck you want to.

Nevertheless, in the never-ending battle between consumer needs and corporate profits, once in a while the consumer wins. Despite potential inconveniences, WLNP might be a case in point.