Denise Fox, a high-volume Realtor here with Coldwell Banker Northwest Group, is stuck in a mobile-telephone paradox.
Her cell phone gives her the freedom to talk to clients from any location, but shes strapped to the wireless carrier that gave her a phone number several years agoa number thats posted on her for-sale signs, in her advertisements, and on her business cards.
My number is out there, and it has been for a long time, so I cant just arbitrarily change carriers, says Fox, who logs in an average of 5,000 to 6,000 wireless minutes a month. I feel like Ive been held captive by my cell-phone company.
A new Federal Communications Commission regulation, set to take effect Nov. 24, will open up some options for Fox and other businesspeople. The rule will require wireless carriers in the U.S. to offer customers number portability, or the option of keeping their mobile-phone numbers when they switch providers. That should free up businesses, as well as individuals, to change carriers more easily when theyre not happy with their rates or service.
Some businesspeople here and wireless company spokespeople say competition among wireless companies could lower rates, but some carriers have said they plan to charge customers fees to take their old numbers with them when they move to new carriers.
David Royal, operations manager of Spokane-based Jims Transfer Inc., which does business as DeVries Moving Packing & Storage, says the new rule will benefit his company, which racks up $2,500 in cell-phone charges a month. Salespeople at DeVries use the phones to stay in touch with their clients, and their numbers have changed about four times in the last few years as the company pursued better rates, he says.
Its hard to say if weve missed work because of it, but its irritating to the customers to leave five messages on an old phone and never get a call back, Royal says.
At R.B. Goebel General Contractor Inc., of Spokane, having to change cell-phone numbers isnt problematic because most of the companys phones are used for communications between its own employees and between its superintendents and the companys subcontractors and suppliers, says accounts manager Cindy Andrews.
The superintendents keep their phones for as long a period as they can, but its not that vital that the numbers be maintained the same, she says. The phones are used mostly to coordinate the progress of a project, and projects usually dont take more than two and a half years to complete, she says.
At the end of each month, though, Andrews evaluates whether Goebels current plan is the most beneficial based on the companys usage. Cell-phone use usually is heavy during the first two thirds of a project, but trickles off toward the end, she says. Andrews often changes the companys cell-phone plan, but hasnt changed the companys carrier for more than two years.
Andrews says an R.B. Goebel subsidiary, Spokane Crane Service, could benefit from the new FCC rule, though. The crane-rental sales managers only business phone is a mobile one and his number is printed on business cards.
Weve had to stick with the same carrier because thats the main number for our customers, Andrews says. The carrier that hes with doesnt have as good a coverage as another carrier would, and itd be more efficient if he could change carrierseven if theres a fee.
Many carriers oppose rule
In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress required the FCC to implement portability for conventional, wire-based telephone-service providers, says Meribeth McCarrick, an FCC spokeswoman.
On its own, the commission extended it to wireless carriers, McCarrick says. The commission thought there were many positive benefits for wireless consumers.
Initially, the rule was scheduled to take effect in 1999, but several wireless carriers have petitioned against it to the FCC, delaying its implementation, she says. The Nov. 24 start date wont be put off, though, McCarrick asserts.
The deadline is what it is, she says.
Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, which had asked the FCC to delay implementation of the rule, says it will cooperate with the change, but warns that carriers must work together to avoid problems after the deadline.
Wireless-number portability is being touted as being consumer-friendly, simple, and easy, but it will be just the opposite unless all carriers consistently understand and implement the (number-) porting process, Cingular says. Number porting is the act of changing carriers while retaining a phone number.
Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint PCS has not been an advocate of number portability, says Dave Mellin, a Denver-based spokesman for Sprint PCS. Its our contention that number portability was introduced on the wire side to facilitate competition. We feel that the wireless industry is already competitive enough.
To comply with the new portability rule, it will cost Sprint PCS tens of millions of dollars to implement new software and hardware, train and hire employees, and make other changes, Mellin says. Lauren Garner, a spokeswoman for Cingular, says that carrier has invested millions of dollars already to comply with the new rule, and expects to invest millions more during the next few years.
Sprint PCS will charge customers $1.10 a month if they use a number that originated with another carrier, Mellin says. McCarrick, of the FCC, says several other carriers also have said they will charge number-portability fees.
Carriers are allowed to recover their costs, she says. If they choose, they can do so by charging a fee for that.
Verizon Wireless didnt advocate the change, but supports it, says Georgia Taylor, a Bellevue, Wash.-based spokeswoman for that company.
I think customers have been asking for this, and the FCC has spoken on this, so were going to make it as easy as we can, Taylor says.
Easy and free, she asserts. Verizon Wireless wont charge new customers to keep mobile phone numbers they obtained from other carriers, nor will it charge customers who leave Verizon, and take their numbers with them, Taylor says.
Cingular also says it wont charge customers a wireless-number portability fee, but will charge them $150 if they break their contract early. Some other carriers also plan to charge customers who break their contracts.
Neither the FCC nor the wireless carriers representatives interviewed for this story can predict exactly what will happen to wireless-phone rates once the new rule takes effect, but all expect that competition for customers will increase. Mellin says Sprint PCS is certainly going to battle for these customers, referring to both its own customers and prospective other customers.
Taylor asserts that good customer service will determine which wireless-phone services will end up as the winners.
Sure, its going to increase competition, she says. Once the FCC rule goes into effect, its going to behoove everyone to make this as easy for the customers as possible.
For Denise Fox, the change wont come soon enough. She declines to disclose the amount of her wireless-phone bills, but says the people in her office cheered when she told them about the expected FCC change.
Cell phones are wonderful. I wouldnt want to go back to not having them, Fox says. Youre handcuffed because youve got to pay those rates, though.
Does she think the new rule will benefit businesseslike hersthat depend on cell phones?
Ill be shocked if the increased competition doesnt lower the rates, Fox says. Who wouldnt leave if another company offered a better deal?
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