Number portability brings both opportunities and warnings

The government's telephone services overseer thinks number portability, which initially becomes available next week, will be more beneficial than problematic.

'Both the public and private sectors will benefit from number portability,' said John Johnson, assistant commissioner for service development at the Federal Technology Service, which manages major telecommunications contracts for the government.

Beginning Nov. 24, telephone customers in the nation's largest 100 markets will be able to take their phone numbers with them when they change carriers. Six months later number portability will be available throughout the country.

The new Federal Communications Commission rule applies to switches from landline to cellular accounts, as well as switches between cellular carriers.

The new rules could help reduce the administrative burden of tracking and managing thousands of phone numbers, Johnson said. Managing calling cards, billing and correspondence all could be simplified, he said. 'There are a lot of potential benefits.'

But along with these benefits come warnings of potential problems for those who switch carriers.

'You'll be able to start up your account with a new carrier very easily, but will the old one stop billing?' asked Roger Oustecky, vice president and CIO of MSS*Group Inc. of Castle Rock, Colo. 'Phone companies are very good about starting billing but not so good about stopping it.'

The result could be double billing. Oustecky also predicts an increase in billing errors and a decline in the quality of customer service as service reps have to deal with unfamiliar phone numbers. The telephone industry's billing systems were not designed to operate in the current competitive environment, and a large number of changes in accounts could create problems, he said.

MSS*Group makes its money from managing telephone billing for large enterprises. Oustecky said the typical organization overspends by about 10 percent on its phone bills'enough that his company guarantees that savings from its service will at least cover the cost of its fixed fee.

Johnson acknowledged that the change could create some problems but said he does not expect any major headaches.

'Like any new initiative, there will be some issues associated with it,' he said. 'But I'm not aware of any showstoppers.'

Verizon Wireless of Bedminster, N.J., the nation's largest cellular carrier, offered some tips for customers who want to switch service providers and keep their numbers.

'Don't cancel the current service before switching,' the company advised. 'The number must be active to switch.' Be aware of early termination fees in your current contract, and be prepared if things don't go as smoothly as you hope. 'Have an alternate contact number for emergencies in case the port takes longer than anticipated.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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