Wireless Number Portability Deadline Looms

Cingular and its rivals have until Nov. 24 to get set to handle each others' phone numbers when a customer switches carriers.

Thaddeus Arroyo, Chief Information Officer for wireless carrier Cingular, is preparing for what could be a six-week sprint to meet a regulatory mandate.

Wireless local number portability, known as WLNP, will allow customers of the 100 largest carriers to take their phone numbers with them if they choose to switch their allegiance. The deadline: Nov. 24. The catch? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which established wireless number portability, hasnt finalized rules for how it should work.

That means Arroyo and his counterparts at other wireless firms will not know how to alter their systems until sometime this month. They will have to complete changes to those systems by the end of next month.

"It makes our life very difficult," says Arroyo. "Were in a last-minute scramble at the moment."

The FCCs two top issues are determining the boundaries for areas where numbers can be swapped and deciding whether wireline numbers will be interchangeable with wireless ones. The FCC mandate is just the latest Arroyo and other technology executives are facing. Whether its wireless number portability or Sarbanes-Oxley, government mandates can turn into implementation headaches.

However, the FCC isnt the only hang up. Most wireless carriers have yet to forge interconnection agreements with rivals or wireline carriers for porting numbers. Wireless players have been preparing internal applications for number portability, but havent ironed out industry agreements to exchange identifiers like names and addresses beyond a phone number.

The big task for Arroyo and other executives is to try to generate a benefit from something that has to be done. Arroyo doesnt have a return-on-investment figure for compliance, but hopes there are some undetermined "secondary benefits" such as creating a more flexible network and setting the stage to meet future mandates.

At this juncture, though, Arroyo is more worried about offering customers—both incoming and outgoing—the mandated option, without slipup. Depending on the number of applications at a carrier, its possible hundreds of systems will have to be retrofitted.

Many wireless carrier systems, inherited from established telecommunications providers or cobbled together through acquisitions, were not set up to communicate with other carriers or import non-formatted data. Even if wireless carriers all agree to swap customer information electronically, the process could be held up by something as simple as an abbreviation for a street, says Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.


Check out the latest wireless number portability story: "Regulators Work on Keeping Cell Numbers" here


Meanwhile, number portability may increase churn—subscribers who hop between providers—and spark a marketing war to keep current customers and attract new ones. Sprint says it is spending "hundreds of millions of dollars" to comply with regulations, including portability. AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless did not return calls.

For Arroyo, there is a bright side. He only has to retrofit fewer than 300 applications to prepare for portability, down from 1,400 when the company was created in 2000 as a joint venture between SBC Communications and BellSouth.

Thats the good news. The bad? Arroyo has to revamp Cingulars billing and customer service systems, involved in almost every Cingular transaction, to accept number portability requests.

Other tasks such as synching enterprise planning software that may be affected takes a back seat. Arroyo declined to comment on specifics about his plan and the labor resources needed to meet the Nov. 24 deadline.

Next Page: Major billing systems integration issues.