Verizon Charts Own Course on Cell Number Portability

Number portability Verizon asks FCC to nix any bids by rivals to foil mandate.

As the deadline for the federal cell phone number portability mandate draws closer, Verizon Wireless is going out of its way to point out its competitors attempts to avoid it.

The Bedminster, N.J., company earlier this month issued a filing to the Federal Communications Commission urging the agency to reject any attempts from its competitors to squash the mandate.

"Now on the verge of achieving wireless [local number portability], the Commission faces a direct challenge to it that, if not quickly and firmly rejected, will gut the effectiveness of the mandate," the Verizon filing states.

LNP, to be implemented Nov. 24, gives cell phone customers the right to keep their phone numbers even when they switch carriers.

Verizon once opposed the mandate, along with the rest of the major cellular carriers, but in June the company changed its tune, announcing that Verizon will not only support the mandate, but it will also not charge number porting fees to old customers who want to switch carriers or new customers who want to keep their numbers.

Meanwhile, a consortium called the Wireless Carrier Group continues to oppose the mandate. The group comprises Sprint Corp., Alltel Communications Inc., Nextel Communications Inc., Cingular Wireless LLC and AT&T Wireless Services Inc.

The WCG has filed several letters to the FCC arguing that the mandate is vague and unnecessary.

"Its a solution looking for a problem in a lot of ways," said Doug Brandon, vice president of federal affairs at AT&T Wireless Washington bureau and the companys WCG representative. "There are at least six carriers, and customers seem to have no problem changing between them."

The latest major WCG filing addresses a July 3 letter from John Muleta, chief of the FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, in Washington, to the CTIA, which is the wireless industrys largest lobbying group.

Muletas letter indicated that carriers cannot refuse to port a customers phone number to another carrier while attempting to collect delinquent fees from that customer. (Muletas letter followed a previous filing from Verizon warning against the "schemes" of its competitors to fight the porting process.)

Dated Aug. 1, the WCGs lengthy response to the letter states that the group does not consider Muletas statement to be a binding rule.

"Due to the new and novel issue the WTB letter addresses and the dramatic impact that a directive on unconditional porting would have on carriers operations and contracts, it does not appear that the Commission would treat the WTB letter as having a binding effect," the WCG filing says.

If porting werent contingent on settling up with a company, "all of a sudden, customers would bear more costs," AT&T Wireless Brandon said. "Free phones would go away; the cost of bad debt would be passed on to everyone else."

AT&T Wireless charges a per-month service fee of $1.75 that includes recovery for several FCC mandates, including location-based services for emergency operators (Enhanced 911), number pooling and LNP. If the FCC rescinds the portability rule, the company would lower the fee, Brandon said. Cingular, Nextel and Sprint also charge similar monthly regulatory fees related to the portability mandate.

The WCG filing goes on to argue against the Muleta letter for some 20 pages stating, among other things, that Muletas "guidance" would unlawfully abrogate carrier contracts.

Verizons response filing argues that, aside from Cingular, none of the WCG carriers has mentioned a service contract that includes a provision requiring customers to pay in full before porting their number.

"[The opponents] make it clear that they will slow or block a customers desire to change carriers and keep the same numbers until the customer fully settles up his account [even if some charges are in dispute]," Verizons filing says.

The FCC has yet to respond, but the CTIA has made it clear that it backs the WCG. "Unfortunately, important policy decisions that will determine how wireless number portability will affect consumers are becoming a competitive slugfest rather than a search for solutions," said Tom Wheeler, president of the CTIA, in a statement.