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FCC Throws a Land Line to Cellphone Customers

Users will be able to keep their numbers when switching from conventional to wireless.

November 11, 2003|James S. Granelli and Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writers

Cutting the cord to your home telephone line just got easier.

Federal regulators on Monday made it possible for most Americans to ditch their local phone companies and switch to wireless carriers without losing the phone numbers their friends and relatives know by heart.

The decision to let residents of the nation's 100 biggest metropolitan areas transfer their land-line numbers to their cellphones is designed to spur competition in the telecommunications industry.

Letting people leave their local phone companies without giving up their home numbers will "eliminate impediments to competition between wireless and wire-line services," said Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell.

Peter Malick, a Los Angeles musician who spends most of his time on the road, said he had been thinking about giving up his land line before Monday's decision by the FCC.

"I was on the fence. With that news, I'm going to go," said Malick, who alternates between SBC Communications Inc. and AT&T Corp. for the phone wired in his house. "I think that's rocking."

Malick said he was frustrated by what he described as hidden or excessive land-line charges. He cited the recent indignity of a phone company's demanding $20 to set up a voice mailbox, a feature that's free on a cellphone.

A land line, he said, "just doesn't make sense anymore."

Twenty years ago, the vast majority of Americans had only one choice for phone service: AT&T. After Ma Bell was broken up in 1984, its local network was split among seven Baby Bells, including Pacific Bell, now part of SBC. Then Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to open the Bells' networks to competition.

The stiffest competition has come from wireless carriers. In fact, the number of cellphone users has been rising as the number of land lines has been falling. According to the FCC and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn., there were 187.5 million land lines in use in the U.S. last year, down 2.2% from 2001, and 140.8 million cellphones, up 9.7%.

About 8% of the nation's telephone customers have severed their land lines to go wireless. Bill Hardekopf, chief executive of the consumer Web site SaveOnPhone.com, said the FCC decision would "open the door" for more switching, but there wouldn't necessarily be a stampede.

There are a host of reasons for people to stay wired. For starters, some people can't get clear cellphone reception inside their homes. An earthquake or other natural disaster that cuts off power could deprive victims of their only phone once the battery runs out of juice. And unlike wired phones, cellphones don't automatically give out their locations to 911 dispatchers.

"I love my cellphone, but there's an issue of network stability," said Natalie Billingsley, an analyst at the California Public Utilities Commission's Office of Ratepayer Advocates. "Land lines don't have dead spots."

For Wes Conard, a Silicon Valley public relations executive, the barrier is the Internet: He uses his SBC-serviced home phone chiefly for online access. But he said he would be glad to get rid of SBC if he could get a good deal on the more expensive high-speed cable access.

"I don't use it to talk to anyone," Conard said. "I am constantly in a rage about my various service providers, and I would be grateful for whatever leverage I could get."

Starting Nov. 24, people in the 100 biggest markets will be able to disconnect a home or business land line and transfer that number to a cellphone so long as the wire-line and wireless companies have overlapping coverage. The FCC also voted to allow the privilege of switching to become available to the rest of the country starting in May.

On Monday, two of the Bells, Qwest Communications International Inc. of Denver and BellSouth Corp. of Atlanta, said they were considering legal challenges to the FCC order.

San Antonio-based SBC, California's dominant local phone company, wants to review the order to see how it resolves many complex issues that arise when numbers move from one system to another, said James C. Smith, a senior vice president.

The company "encourages customers to thoroughly research their decision before deciding to switch or to cut the cord altogether," Smith said.

Verizon Communications Inc., the nation's largest phone company and majority owner of Verizon Wireless, initially had opposed the idea of letting people transfer land-line numbers. But now that "the issue has been decided," said spokesman Jonathan Davies, "Verizon endorses the concept."

Nov. 24 also is the day that, by order of the FCC, cellphone users will be allowed to switch wireless providers and take their phone numbers with them. That freedom is expected to kick off a frenzied battle for market share as providers compete for customers' loyalty, and dollars.

Various surveys predict that as many as 60 million wireless subscribers will switch carriers but not their cellphone numbers. Some experts expect about 10 million to make the switch on the first day.

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Times wire services were used in compiling this report.

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