The rule allowing consumers to do this was authorized by the Federal Communications Commission just over a year ago, though experts told UPI's Wireless World that customers largely are just beginning to learn of it.
"In general, things are going pretty well," said Doug Brueckner, senior vice president of wireless at Convergys, a developer of wireless billing software in Cincinnati. "There have been a number of people taking advantage of it -- a pretty substantial number. What is driving it is that consumers want to have a choice."
The United States is becoming a case study for phone-number portability, as wireless carriers, regulators, and consumers in other countries eye enviously what is going on here, hoping to pass similar policies soon. Governments in New Zealand, Pakistan and other countries are mulling number portability.
In the United States, the policy, called local-number portability, or LNP, performs a number of functions. For one thing, it is designed to improve competition among carriers. The rationale is if customers can leave and take their numbers with them, carriers are more likely to try to give them excellent service to keep them from departing.
Moreover, the FCC decided, consumers could port their numbers among wireless carriers, from wireless to landline, or from landline to wireless -- all within a local area. That much movement should change the dynamics of the entire telephone industry, experts said.
According to FCC's figures, since Nov. 24, 2003, more than 8.5 million Americans have utilized LNP when switching carriers. The majority of the consumers switched wireless carriers.
"One of the primary reasons for the great success of the mobile telephone industry has been competition, and wireless LNP has stimulated competition on wireless carriers providing quality service and greater consumer choice," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement on Nov. 24, 2004. "Wireless LNP allows consumers to choose their carrier, based on the best rates and plans for their needs, rather than remaining captive to a carrier they no longer want in order not to undergo a change of phone number."
Porting a number is a relatively straightforward process. A consumer notifies a new carrier that he or she wants to switch. The consumer provides the number to the carrier and a copy of the phone bill.
The former carrier cannot refuse to port the number, but can charge the customer for the switch -- although the carrier must bill the costs as a specific line item in the consumer's monthly statement. Carriers may set the rate for an LNP switch.
Technical difficulties exist in some areas of the country that have made the process less than smooth. For example, some carriers do not have the capability to port a landline number to a wireless phone just yet. Moreover, if a consumer leaves a landline provider and goes wireless, he or she may have to make provisions separately for a long-distance carrier, because long-distance service is not automatically switched when moving from one phone service provider to another.
The time it takes to port a wireless phone number to another wireless carrier varies, but it should be less than three hours, the FCC said, because the wireless industry agreed to that timeframe. Transferring a landline number to a wireless phone probably will take longer, the FCC added -- something that may become a major deterrent to requesting the service, experts said.
Also, consumers sometimes may experience problems with compatibility of technologies. Some mobile phones do not work with all carriers, so consumers may have to buy a new handset to keep their old number if they switch.
Still technological changes should help alleviate these problems. For example, right now, mobile phone users cannot switch to a carrier outside of their own geographic area. With new Internet telephones, however, they can do so.
"It is my understanding that you can only port numbers within your own area code with conventional carriers," said Bruce Judson, a faculty fellow at the Yale University School of Management and author of "Go It Alone: The Secret to Building a Successful Business" (Harper Business). "So, if you are an actor, you cannot port between your conventional landline in Cleveland and your mobile phone to make it look as if you have a 213 area code and live in L.A."
With Internet phones, however, he noted, customers can choose whatever area code they want.
"Years ago," Judson told Wireless World, "businesses wanted an address in Manhattan for credibility purposes. Now they want a 212 area code for the same thing."
Eventually, technology experts reckon, consumers and businesses will be able to choose a portable number for wherever they may be, whether from a conventional local phone company, a wireless carrier or an Internet telephone carrier. That option will revolutionize telephone service.
"More people getting to the point where they want their phone numbers to be wherever they are," Brueckner said. "That's where the future is going to be. We're going to try to make the technology as seamless as possible."
Gene Koprowski is a 2004 Winner of a Lilly Foundation Award for journalism for this column for United Press International. He covers telecommunications technologies for UPI Science News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org