Navigating Wireless Portability

It's finally here -- Nov. 24th, telecom judgment day. Today, the wireless number portability (WNP) regulation goes into effect. Consumers are now allowed to seamlessly transfer phone numbers across service providers. Americans now have the capability to keep a number while moving between wireless service providers or even when transferring a landline phone service to a wireless account.

The nation's largest wireless services providers -- Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ  ) , Cingular Wireless (joint venture between SBC (NYSE: SBC  ) and Bellsouth (NYSE: BLS  ) ), AT&T Wireless (NYSE: AWE  ) , Sprint PCS (NYSE: PCS  ) , Nextel Communications (Nasdaq: NXTL  ) , and T-Mobile (subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT  ) ) -- have been frantically preparing for this date with mixed anticipation. While they stand to see many customers leave their service, each is hoping to pick up more from their competitors as well as local landline service providers.

Several analysts have predicted millions of Americans will take advantage of the new ruling almost immediately upon implementation. But porting numbers still doesn't make sense for many consumers, even if they are unhappy with their current services. So how do you know if wireless number porting is right for you? Let's take a quick stab at the Foolish Guide to Wireless Number Portability.

First off, let's start by dispelling some popular myths about number portability:

Myth #1: Everybody's doing it!
No, that was the Do-Not-Call list. Visions of millions of Americans flooding stores and phone lines to port their numbers on Nov. 24 is overblown. Number porting removes one drawback in switching providers, but it is not -- and should not -- be taken as a motivation to switch in and of itself. Switching providers must make some level of sense regardless of keeping your number, so don't be a Lemming!

Myth #2: Porting my number will be quick and painless
WNP is uncharted territory and the first few months will likely flush out many bugs in the processing systems. At a minimum, the service provides expect wireless-to-wireless porting to take a few hours. Landline to wireless porting will likely take four days or more. Going through with the process may still be worth it, but be prepared -- the threshold of pain may be high.

Myth #3: Anything is better than my current provider
Ahhhh. The "grass is always greener" syndrome comes to wireless. For mobile consumers that have bad experiences with their current provider, know this -- it can be worse. All providers have issues with coverage, dropped calls, poorly performing equipment, customer service, and a whole host of other quality issues. You may be surprised after switching to learn that you left a comparably good thing for something even worse.

Here's some Foolish pointers to navigate the thick:

Tip #1: Check if you're even eligible
Wireless number portability is only available to the top 100 metropolitan markets on Nov. 24th. Check the Cellular Telecommunication and Internet Association's (CTIA) sponsored website for a list of areas impacted and some good consumer tips and FAQs. You also need to ensure that your current provider is set up to move your number. Most providers have sections on their websites set up to answer this question, or you can call their customer service number. The key to remember here is that the number porting mandate is local -- it's only possible for porting numbers within a local region (your defined local service area).

Tip #2: Check your expectations
Switching wireless service providers may not solve your problems. In some cases, consumers have unreasonably high expectations of wireless service. What's unreasonable? Coverage everywhere I go. No dead batteries. Everything free, free, FREE! Remember that mobile phones are not telephones -- they are radios. Consumers turning off their landlines and porting the number to a wireless phone need to make sure they understand that this will come with a lower quality of service inherent with radio communications.

Wireless consumers may be frustrated by leaving one set of problems with one carrier and just inheriting a whole new set of problems with a new one. The best thing to do is talk to friends and family about their service providers -- both the pros and the cons. Make sure they live and work in areas similar to you, so that you're comparing apples to apples when talking about coverage and dropped calls.

Also, keep in mind you'll likely have to purchase a new phone when switching providers. If you're really dedicated to a particular style or manufacturer of phones, you may not like the new provider's offerings. This can also mean you'll lose carrier-specific direct contact capabilities such as instant messaging or push-to-talk -- unless all your contacts transfer providers with you.

Tip #3: Check your bill
What services are you paying for now and which ones do you get for free? Consumers may be surprised to find that their new provider charges for things that used to be free, or vice versa. For instance, AT&T Wireless allows unlimited incoming text messages for free, while other carriers charge 5 to 10 cents for each. If you've signed up for horoscopes and love notes to be sent to your number 30 times a day, watch out -- your next love note could be in the form of an oversized bill.

Tip #4: Practice delayed gratification
Probably the best advice for consumers looking to switch carriers is to simply wait. Certainly, if you can wait a few weeks, it may well be worth it. The number porting process may initially be a nightmare for carriers, and being caught up in all the mess may make you a Grinch for the holidays. Many providers offer some killer deals around the holidays, so if cost and features are tempting you to switch, you may want to check out the deals your current carrier is offering to keep you. The biggest benefit of WNP may come from staying where you are.

Especially when considering ditching a landline, consumers should be careful to understand the full impact. What if you have an alarm system on your home that needs phone service to call police? Do you know for certain that you get wireless coverage in your home?

Wireless porters needed to tread carefully as well. Make sure you don't terminate your original service until after your number is ported to a new provider. And though both phones (old and new) will be able to call 911 during the porting process, E911 operators may not be able to call your phone back depending upon when the porting actually happens -- so stay on the line. And the new regulation will not help you avoid contract termination fees -- if you're still in a one or two-year plan, you'll have to pay this when you switch.

In the long run, the number porting regulation will go a long way to provide more choices and flexibility for consumers, as long as expectations are realistic. Make use of ample Web resources from your current and prospective providers to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Dave Mock is co-author of Tapping into Wireless and owns shares of Nextel. He is waiting anxiously to port his number to some tropical island in the Caribbean. Until then, Dave can be reached at dave@davemock.com.


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