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Cellular group: Number porting causing few problems

May 13, 20044 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMobileRegulation

Cellular telephone carriers should be ready for a second deadline for allowing number portability, but many rural wireline telephone companies are trying to get out of the national portability rules, officials with the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) said in a briefing Thursday.

Most cellular and wireline carriers outside of the 100 largest U.S. markets face a May 24 deadline from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow customers to switch carriers and retain their telephone numbers. Cellular carriers in the 100 largest U.S. markets, representing about 70% of U.S. cellular customers, had to allow number portability after Nov. 24. However, the deadline this month allows state public utility commissions to grant extensions to some carriers.

Hundreds of rural local exchange carriers, or LECs, have filed requests for extensions, CTIA officials said. The extensions would range from a few months to an indefinite period, and some have already been granted.

On May 6, K. Dane Snowden, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, sent a letter to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to ask state public service commissions to only grant exemptions to the May 24 deadline in “extraordinary circumstances.” Customers expect number portability to go into effect May 24, Snowden argued in his letter.

“These are many markets where rural wireline customers have not seen the benefits of competition,” added Mike Altschul, general counsel for CTIA.”…We have lived up on the wireless side to the FCC’s order, and the FCC has made clear that they expect the wireline carriers to follow the FCC order,” he said.

But a representative of the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies (OPASTCO) said small LECs have every right to seek extensions under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The 1996 law allows small-carrier exemptions to number portability “for whatever reasons they have that could be in the public interest,” said Jeffrey Smith, a policy analyst with OPASTCO.

“For the CTIA and the FCC to say (number portability) should be happening, it goes back to the will of Congress,” Smith added. “The law is the law, and to the extent the small local companies have concerns, they are totally justified in taking them to the local regulators.”

Many rural LECs are concerned about how to recover their expenses for switching to number portability, Smith said. Carriers need to buy new equipment, such as switches, to allow number portability, and they need to maintain databases of switched numbers, he said. In some cases, the cost to small LECs could add more than $1 a month to local phone bills, he said, and rural LECs want more time to decide “how to make it work without putting it all on the backs of rural customers.”

CTIA officials said small rural cellular companies are ready for the May 24 deadline. They noted that the number of complaints to the FCC about number portability has dropped from 2,394 in the month after the November deadline to 400 in the last month. Most portability requests are granted within the two-and-a-half hour goal set by the FCC, they said.

First Cellular of Southern Illinois, a cellular carrier with about 100,000 customers, is looking forward to the May 24 deadline, because the company sees an opportunity to gain customers from larger cellular carriers and from wireline carriers, said Terry Addington, the company’s president and CEO. First Cellular implemented number portability after the November deadline for large markets, but only one major cellular carrier agreed to accept number portability with his company before May 24, he said.

Addington’s company spent about $1 million up front to implement number portability and will spend another $300,000 a year to maintain the system, according to company officials.

If state public utility commissions give exemptions to LECs, that will cause confusion for small cellular carriers about which LECs offer number portability, Addington said.

Most rural cellular carriers are expecting less than 40 number portability requests per month, and in most cases, number portability requests will be granted through “low-tech” methods such as phone calls, faxes or e-mail, said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA. Larger carriers allow customers to apply for number porting online.

“(Small cellular carriers) are reluctant to implement a high-cost, high-tech solution,” Largent said. “Frankly, they don’t need to.”

About two million U.S. consumers have taken advantage of wireless number portability since November, according to the FCC.