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Managing Editor

Portability’s debut comes up short

Dec 08, 20034 mins

The first week of wireless number portability proved to be underwhelming in terms of demand, but technically challenging, as some reports said carriers failed to fulfill half or more of requested changes.

The first week of wireless number portability proved to be underwhelming in terms of demand, but technically challenging, as some reports said carriers failed to fulfill half or more of requested changes.

There was no mad rush into the retail storefronts of wireless operators to switch providers. Analyst firm Mobile Competency said 250,000 porting requests were made in the first week, with about 100,000 coming on the first day of portability, Nov. 24.

The public is not very aware of number portability and what it means, according to market tracker RHK. Until recently, the major wireless carriers were not publicizing portability for fear of losing customers, RHK says.

Wireless providers are focused on retaining current customers – not necessarily attracting new ones. In anticipation of higher churn from wireless number portability, operators have been offering attractive rates over longer periods to lock in subscribers, RHK says.

Also, in most cases there is a cost to the subscriber for porting numbers. Subscribers who want to change operators will need to also change handsets, because the North American market uses at least four different wireless technologies, according to RHK – Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), GSM and i-DEN.

As a result, the cost of changing numbers is not just the transaction and software, but also the turnover of handsets from one technology to another.

Nonetheless, some operators noticed an increase in volume in their storefronts last week. A Sprint PCS spokesman says traffic in the more than 500 Sprint stores was heavier than normal early last week.

“There’s more switching going on among consumers rather than businesses, but we’ve seen both,” the spokesman says.

Cingular also saw some higher traffic volumes last week but also said it’s expected during the holiday season, according to Adam Vital, Cingular’s vice president of Wireless Operations and Support. Vital declined to disclose the number of customers porting but said some systems “issues” have delayed some port requests.

The operator is working “around the clock” to resolve the issues, Vital says.

Churning point 

Current churn profile,  without wireless number portability.
A churn rate of between 1.5% and 3% per month, per carrier.
More than 30% of subscribers change service providers each year, regardless of whether their number can be ported.
Average monthly churn rates for mobile telephone service have remained fairly constant over the past three years.
The average churn in North America already costs the industry $240 to $350 per change, totaling $900 million to $1.3 billion per month.

AT&T Wireless also ran into snags last week. Reports surfaced last week that AT&T Wireless was experiencing problems with its systems, making it difficult for it to port new customers to its network.

An AT&T Wireless spokesman, however, says the operator did not experience any system failures but some “bumps in the road, as did all other service providers.” But AT&T Wireless ported customers to and from its network, he says.

Mobile Competency says most carriers reported porting failure rates in the 50% range in the first week. Andrew Cole, a senior vice president at consulting firm Adventis, says 80% of the number switches did not go through.

Cole described the first week of portability as “miserable.” He says the focus of the problem is that carriers haven’t worked out interoperability issues.

Adventis is advising its corporate IT clients to hold off on switching providers until the end of the first quarter of 2004 to let carriers work out the kinks.

Managing Editor

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 28 years, 23 at Network World. He covers enterprise networking infrastructure, including routers and switches. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy and at

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