If You Love Your Wireless Customers, Set Them Free

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin explains why carriers resisting the FCC on cell-number portability could be sabotaging themselves in "the hunger for the number."

Don King would promote it as "The Hunger for the Number," a devious donnybrook for the digits of those who wish to change carriers but keep their phone numbers. In this corner, the FCC claims that phone-number portability is necessary to ensure competition. In the other corner, big carriers are mounting a last-ditch effort to prevent number portability. Carriers and the CTIA argue that the money spent updating the systems to handle the regulations would be better spent on updating their infrastructure for data networks. Those lawyers know the way to a regulators heart.

In this season of Passover, the conflict between the wireless carriers and the FCC over cellular number portability has a familiar ring. Three times the regulatory agency has gone to the carriers and said, "Let your customers go." They promise to with just a little more time, but ultimately their shareholders hearts harden, and they refuse.

Now, the carriers are laying down their staff of lawyers to swallow the FCCs staff of lawyers. Wouldst that Charlton Heston could come to the rescue, but his lobbying organization is more concerned with other small, long-range devices.

While carriers arguments that the cellular phone business is "competitive enough" seem hopelessly lost against an arbitrary yardstick, the United States has one of the most competitive wireless markets in the world, even after the consolidation weve seen in the past decade led to roll-ups like Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Cingular.

The notion of competitiveness was recently ruminated upon by "father of the cell phone" Martin Cooper on the occasion of the cell phones 30th birthday. Cooper insisted that the U.S. did it right in allowing aggressive competition early on. Indeed, the markets reward has been more aggressive pricing than users pay in Europe. But many contend that the FCC should have been more "hands-on" at the dawn of the PCS era, forcing the United States at least to choose GSM or CDMA. Such a move could have brought us closer to the more wireless societies we see in South Korea, Japan and Europe and given certain legislators less fodder to justify their jobs. At this point, though, the carriers can make an excellent case that the FCC doesnt need to regulate.