Carriers Resist Porting Numbers

Wireless carriers are looking for relief from a requirement that would take effect by the end of the year.

Wireless carriers are looking for relief from a requirement that would take effect by the end of the year and allow cell phone customers to keep their number when they change phone companies.

An appeals court is set to rule in the next few months on the argument by carriers that they should not be obligated to "port" numbers among themselves because cellular telephony is already competitive.

The outcome is of interest to enterprise users who see changing numbers as not only an inconvenience but also a major expense requiring new business cards, letterheads and advertising. Noting that he has had the same number since 1993, Greg Imbaro, a structural engineer in Boston, said that the lack of number portability is "the No. 1 reason" to stay with a wireless company.

"With todays advances, there is no technical reason that I cant take my cell phone number with me," Imbaro said. "The cell phone companies are simply doing this to stifle competition, which seems in direct violation of the fair business practice laws in this country. The government has already passed [portability] laws for land lines."

The Federal Communications Commission determined that number portability is necessary to promote competition in the wireless market, and one of the main issues the appeals court will examine is the definition of "necessary." The FCC maintains that it means useful and appropriate, while the wireless industry argues that it means absolutely essential.

Making its case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last week, industry representatives argued that the portability rules would be costly to carriers and not necessarily prove beneficial to users. At the core of the industrys argument is an underlying premise that the FCC should not impose any rules on it, other than those that promote public safety or national security, because regulations arent needed to make the market competitive.

It is an argument toward which the appeals court judges showed considerable skepticism last week.

"The question that leaps out of your argument is that nothing is essential," Judge Harry Edwards told Andrew McBride, the attorney representing Verizon Wireless and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. "I cant think of [any FCC rule] that meets your test."