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Their Number's Up

July 02, 2003

Cellular telephone companies have done their best to delay a 1996 congressional order that they let customers in the nation's 100 largest markets keep their cell phone numbers if they switch providers. One-third of cell phone customers say they would jump ship immediately if not for the hassle of getting a new phone number, so the companies have employed every lawyerly trick to delay complying with successive Federal Communications Commission orders to enforce portability. Now, finally, the dam has cracked if not broken.

Verizon Wireless last week announced it would start to make portable numbers available in November, but Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless and other competitors continue to pound away at the same tired excuses -- the technology is too costly and consumers really don't want portability. Consumers don't want portability? Sure, just as the Colonial revolutionaries didn't want to get rid of King George III. At least Verizon's decision is backing other companies into an uncomfortable corner.

Verizon, which controls almost 25% of the national market, will reap an advertising bonanza as it trumpets its compliance with the FCC's latest deadline, Nov. 24. It won't hurt that Verizon already has the highest customer satisfaction ratings and is thus likely to lose fewer customers than other providers.

Now that he's found religion, Verizon Wireless President and Chief Executive Denny Strigl is describing the conversion process as technologically tough but doable. Strigl, who used a cellular conference in New York on June 24 to break ranks with the industry, also warned of a "justifiable backlash" from consumers if number portability wasn't delivered as promised. Industry experts are divided on whether the laggards will voluntarily follow Verizon, but if regulators hold fast to the Nov. 24 deadline they'll have no choice.

The FCC should ease the process by quickly publishing the technical guidelines that will dictate how the complex switching process will proceed. With those in hand, cell phone companies can develop, test and refine needed software and hardware. And Congress should rally behind Sen. Charles E. Schumer's (D-N.Y.) promise to block any industry-sponsored legislation seeking more deadline extensions.

Once cell phone captives see others gaining freedom, their jailers' days are numbered.

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