Few cell users opt to switch numbers

The FCC’s ruling on number portability creates little buzz.
Sunday, May 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:38 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Wanda Northway is looking to change her cell phone service. She has done so twice in the past. Each time she picked a different provider, she had to surrender her previous phone number. Northway, co-owner of House of Brokers Realty, has never listed her cell number on business cards as she saw it as a hassle to get her new numbers out to the people who needed them.

“The ones I very much wanted to know, I called immediately,” Northway said. “The others were informed as the opportunity provided itself.”

A recent FCC change will make life a little easier for Northway and other cell phone users. On March 24, people were granted wireless local number portability — the ability to change their phone provider and retain their current number. Now Northway can make a switch without having to reach out and update people.

Even though the new LNP requirements have been in the works for more than five years, a smaller number of people than expected are seizing this opportunity.

“It’s been, frankly, business as usual,” said Dave DeVries, Midwestern spokesman for Sprint. “There is an interest, but it’s just making a gentle wave.”

DeVries wasn’t expecting a tsunami of changes after he saw earlier predictions fail to materialize last year.

As a trial run to work out the kinks, on Nov. 24, 2003, the FCC required wireless carriers in the 100 largest metropolitan areas — including St. Louis and Kansas City — to start allowing customers to swap services and retain their phone numbers.

Despite early estimates that between 12 to 30 million numbers would have been moved by now, the FCC reports that only 3.5 million numbers have been transferred. Of these, approximately 3.34 million involved wireless-to-wireless transfers; 229,000 involved landline-to-wireless transfers; and 7,000, wireless-to-landline transfers.

“This is a non-event,” said Don Neely, spokesman for local landline provider CenturyTel. Of its 3 million customers in 22 states, his company logged only 10 requests to change landline numbers to wireless, he said.

Though the numbers may be small, the FCC directive has had an impact on local businesses.

“There were people waiting for this,” , said Paul Jeffries, store manager of Fusion Technology, a Columbia AT&T dealer. More than 50 people asked about porting their numbers in the preceding months, he said.

By Saturday, he had switched roughly 10 numbers. Many of those swappers had visited him previously, and are returning now that the switching option is available.

The process is quick, Jeffries said. On average customers spend between 30 to 45 minutes in the store filling out paperwork. After that, the customers can leave as technicians spend up to four hours to make a wireless-to-wireless transfer and up to four business days for landline-to-wireless or wireless-to-landline reconnection.

Some people may have to wait longer than that to get their number transferred, because there are some exceptions to the FCC’s ruling.

Natelle Dietrich, an economist in the telecommunications department of the Missouri Public Service Commission, said 37 rural landline phone providers in Missouri had appealed for a waiver — a modification or suspension of the required LNP. She said these companies were either in the process of updating equipment, were concerned about the cost of transferring numbers, or were seeking further clarification on the rules.

Hearings will start in June to determine if companies will be given extensions or if they will be directed to start swapping numbers. Dietrich said the Mid-Missouri Telephone Co. of Pilot Grove was the only local landline provider who was on the state’s appeal list.

Missourian reporter Christina Murphy contributed to this report.

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