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Cell Phone Numbers Racket

January 17, 2002

As anyone who has recently shopped for a cell phone knows, the options are endless. Want a phone the size and heft of a Hershey bar? They make it. Voice-activated dialing and picture-caller ID? No problem. Optional FM radio? Web access? Your choice of 30 irritating ring tones?

There is seemingly no feature that the U.S. cellular industry can't provide its customers--except so-called number portability, which would allow cell phone users to keep the same number when switching carriers.

The Federal Communications Commission in 1996 ordered mobile phone companies to offer this convenience in the nation's 100 largest markets as a way to increase competition and broaden consumer choices. The industry stalled and dragged its feet, missing two deadlines. The latest deadline is Nov. 24, but rather than working to meet it, the largest mobile service providers, led by Verizon Wireless, have asked the FCC to drop the mandate altogether.

It's easy to see why. Many cell phone subscribers put up with poor service rather than switch providers because it's just too much of a hassle to change phone numbers already publicized on business cards or circulated among customers and friends--who no doubt then programmed them into their own cell phones. An industry infamous for poor customer service is in no hurry to make it easier for subscribers to bail out.

That is not, of course, what the industry says.

It will cost too much, say mobile phone companies that routinely spend millions developing ever smaller phones, ever faster transmission and ever newer features.

It will kill a fledgling industry, says an expanding industry that has seen its market double between 1999 and 2001 to 123 million subscribers.

It will be a pain technically, say innovators who are fast developing always-on systems that combine the functions of phone, computer and pager.

Nonsense. Regular, wired phone companies have already retooled their networks to provide local number portability. If consumers switch their home phone service from AT&T, say, to Sprint, they aren't forced to get a new phone number. The FCC should hold wireless service to the same standard. Allow number portability and cell phone companies will have to try to keep customers the old-fashioned way--by improving service.

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