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FCC to Act on Key Phone Competition Issue

Telecom: Approval expected today for system that would allow people to keep their numbers when they switch companies.


WASHINGTON — Moving to promote more local telephone competition, federal regulators today are expected to approve final standards for a costly and complex routing system that would allow phone users to keep their existing numbers when they switch carriers or move.

The agency's new standards would set the stage for a nationwide roll-out of telephone "number portability" in which rivals of the seven regional Bell companies could more easily compete for business without saddling customers with the aggravation and expense of changing their phone numbers when they move within the same city.

"Customers are twice as likely to change carriers if they can take their number with them," said Len Sawicki, director of Federal Communications Commission affairs for the long-distance carrier MCI Communications Inc. "We are hopeful the FCC will follow the lead of some states" and implement full number portability.

In New York and a handful of other states with laws to promote local telephone competition, rivals pay the local phone company between $1 and $5 a month per customer to emulate number portability, using remote call forwarding to send calls from the old carrier to the new one.

But the system is cumbersome, and customers often lose the use of many of the advanced features of the telephone network, such as caller ID and call waiting, experts say. As a consequence, many alternative carriers say they have been unable to make headway against the Baby Bells in signing up customers.

Changing a phone number "is a pretty serious obstacle," said Paul Kouroupas, vice president of regulatory and external affairs for Teleport, a rival local phone company. "The majority of customers say flat-out no--even if we have better price and service quality."

An FCC official said the standards would probably require that each phone company establish a database that would be used to verify and switch all numbers being called before they are directed to the recipient.

A similar routing system is already in place for toll-free numbers. But a nationwide number portability system involving scores of prefixes is expected to be more complex to implement than the system for toll-free numbers.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to seek further input on how telephone companies might recover the costs for implementing the $2-billion system.

Indeed, several carriers, including US West and Pacific Bell, expressed concern that the system would be too expensive and might compromise the reliability of the telephone network. They wanted a system that would trigger a database inquiry only if the customer were using an outside carrier.

"We are concerned about the expense," said Rob Jackson, who heads the federal regulatory office of US West in Washington. "There is also a concern about [telephone] outages since this system doesn't exist today."

The FCC is likely to set a deadline--probably between the third quarter of 1997 and the beginning of 1998--for local phone companies to put a number portability system in place--at least in the country's biggest 100 markets.

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