Making traditional phone number portable

Taking any phone number with you wherever you move is a new twist to the number portability rules being scrutinized by federal regulators.

In November, cell phone customers will be able to keep their numbers if they change wireless carriers. Now, the Federal Communications Commission is considering allowing customers to keep the same number if they move from a traditional phone service to wireless.


If the FCC approves the change, wireless carriers can woo customers away from using wired service.

Those are fighting words to traditional phone carriers.


"You can't do it," said Richard Notebaert, chief executive of Qwest Communications, the regional phone company based in Denver. "It's not technically possible."

As things work now, a wire line phone customer will lose his phone number if he moves from Oak Park, Ill., to Evanston, Ill.

That could change when wireless number portability kicks in. Consumers who move to a new home could take their phone number anywhere they wish, simply by moving that number to a wireless carrier.

"We want to use number portability as a marketing tool," said Doug Brandon, an executive with AT&T; Wireless. "We would let you keep your number and take it anywhere you want in the United States."

Most of the wireless industry has focused on what will happen once customers can take their numbers with them when moving from one cell phone provider to another.

But the question of moving numbers from traditional wired service to wireless falls into a gray area that awaits clarification that FCC officials say will be given before the Nov. 24 portability deadline.

It's an especially important question for AT&T; Wireless, the No. 2 cell phone company as measured by revenue.

"Unlike the other large wireless carriers [Verizon and Cingular], we're an independent wireless company," said Brandon, AT&T; Wireless vice president for federal affairs. "It's in our interest to move customers off of wired-service altogether because we don't have ties to a wired company."


There are now close to 150 million wireless phone customers in North America, and the number is growing. In contrast, the number of North American wired access subscribers - 223 million in 2002 - is shrinking.

Executives at wired companies are not inclined to help speed the loss of their customers. Their primary argument against allowing a shift of wired phone numbers to wireless has to do with how calling charges are assessed.

Wire-line phone numbers are tied to so-called "rate centers" so that a number is tied to a central office. Rate center information is used in determining how much to charge for calls made to or from that number.

It's a complex system that has grown up over generations. And it's totally irrelevant to the wireless world where people buy buckets of minutes that often are good for calling anywhere in the country at no extra charge.

For number portability between wireless and wire-line to work, wireless carriers will either have to change the way they dole out numbers, or wire-line companies will have to abandon their practice of charging by the distance calls travel.

In the Chicago area, for example, there are about 150 different wired rate centers, said James Smith, a senior vice president with SBC Communications Inc., and wireless numbers are associated with only about 10 percent of them. From the wire-line perspective, that means that 90 percent of wireless customers would be ineligible to adapt their numbers from a wired phone to a wireless one.


"We believe that any portability system should work bi-directionally," said Smith. "That means if an AT&T; Wireless customer wants to take his number to an SBC wire-line service, he ought to be able to do it. But now, only about 10 percent of wireless customers could do that."

Smith said that SBC would like to work out a compromise with the wireless industry to facilitate moving numbers between wired and wire-line service. He also said that it's likely that over time wired service will move away from its traditional rate-center orientation.

But it will take months or years to get state and federal regulators to change existing rules that codify the rate center system, he said.

The FCC is weighing such problems and will provide industry guidance before Nov. 24, said John Muleta, chief of the FCC's wireless bureau.

"We favor number portability," Muleta said. "We have two systems that have grown up under different regulatory paradigms. We want to give consumers more choices about service providers.

"We're trying to figure out the right balance to do this in a fair way."


The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.