Carriers Unprepared for Wireless Number Portability Deadline

Number portability is drawing near, but because many wireless carriers aren't ready for the flood of customers looking to make the switch, experts advise waiting to change contracts.

While wireless number portability will give corporate customers a chance to consolidate service plans, experts say CIOs would be wise to wait a few months. Beginning Nov. 24, wireless subscribers in the United States will be able to keep their phone numbers when changing carriers to take advantage of better prices and services, thanks to a mandate from the Federal Communications Commission. The move will be a boon to corporate customers, which face the logistical and costly expense of having to alter a range of records and documents, such as employee business cards, each time the company chooses a new carrier. But many wireless carriers arent ready for the avalanche of companies that will be looking to make a switch.

"In my opinion, if there is a one-time explosion, its going to be a bloody mess," said Pamela Reeve, CEO of Lightbridge Inc., in Burlington, Mass., which processes 40 percent of the credit information for new wireless subscribers for customers such as AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Sprint PCS Group. "There will be a system overload."

In fact, customers should wait until at least March before trying to change carriers, according to a new study from Mobile Competency Inc., a consultancy in Providence, R.I.

The study focused on six major carriers, all of which have established WNP (wireless number portability) call centers: Verizon Wireless Inc., Sprint, Nextel Communications Inc., T-Mobile USA Inc. and Cingular Wireless Inc. Of these, only Verizon, Sprint, Nextel and Cingular have call centers designed for enterprise ports. And only Sprint and Nextel have published enterprise WNP guidelines.

The study also found that only two carriers are prepared for porting from wire line to wireless: Verizon, which stands to gain wireless business from its own wire-line customers, and Nextel, which has no wire-line business.

As of last week, none of the top six carriers had completed carrier-to-enterprise service-level agreements nor had any completed intercarrier testing with the other five carriers to make sure that porting would work smoothly. While the FCC has issued loose guidelines that say a port should take no more than 2.5 hours, there is no penalty for carriers that dont meet that time limit.

"CIOs and IT managers could put the company at risk if they jump too soon," said Bob Egan, president of Mobile Competency. "A barrier to consolidation is being removed. The question is, when should you exploit it?"

To that end, enterprise customers do not seem to be in a rush to switch, but they do consider WNP a boon. Nationwide coverage from most of the major carriers will give customers the chance to consolidate providers.

"I would not expect to see knee-jerk reactions to the initial outpouring of new plans and pricing," said Kevin Wilson, product line manager for desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., and an eWEEK Corporate Partner. "But in mid-2004, as the smoke clears, I expect many corporations to issue formal [requests for proposal] for wireless phone and data services."

On the other hand, some customers are keeping a wary eye on their existing service deals. "I suspect most carriers will probably raise penalties for contract cancellations and extend the length of agreements," said John Halamka, CIO of CareGroup Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School, in Boston.

Questions CIOs should ask before switching:

  • Whats the guaranteed time for porting from beginning to end?
  • Are handsets guaranteed during the porting process?
  • What issues, such as billing problems among individual users, could delay the porting process once it starts?
  • Will services such as text messaging and applications access be included in the port?

Source: Mobile Competency

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