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Rocky start for number portability

Glitches for cellphone owners

As a new national wireless number portability policy nears its one-month anniversary Wednesday, industry analysts and consumer groups say rampant glitches and red tape are leading millions of disgruntled cellphone owners to postpone switching carriers.

 

The Nov. 24 launch of the Federal Communications Commission policy lets cellphone subscribers in Greater Boston and other urban areas keep their existing phone number, with the policy expanding nationwide next May. Some analysts had predicted the change would unleash a wave of subscriber defections, with potentially 10 million to 30 million of the 153 million US wireless subscribers switching carriers in the next several months.

But so far, "for the most part, it's been a big yawn, not a cataclysmic event for the wireless industry," said Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Wellesley wireless consulting firm Mobile Ecosystem. While wireless carriers and industry officials have released no hard numbers yet, Lowenstein estimates that only around 250,000 to 300,000 Americans appear to have actually taken advantage of number portability so far.

One indication of how slow the pace of carrier switching has been is that Sprint PCS, widely seen as a carrier vulnerable to losing customers because of service complaints, said last week that number portability "is expected to have an immaterial impact on PCS Group's fourth-quarter net customer additions."

Adam Goldberg, a policy analyst with Consumers Union in Washington, which operates a number-portability website called escapecellhell.org, said, "In the long run, we think it's going to be a positive thing for the consumer and promote better service and better plans, but from our perspective, we don't think it's gone terribly well. We've been kind of disappointed that it hasn't been a smoother experience for the consumer."

FCC officials have stipulated that the industry seek to assure that moving a number from one wireless carrier to another can be completed in 2 1/2 hours or less. But many consumers have found it took several hours longer, or even days in many cases, to complete the switch.

AT&T Wireless Services Inc. came under particularly harsh FCC scrutiny for rampant bungling of number-switching requests in the first two weeks, problems the Redmond, Wash.-based carrier said earlier this month it has largely fixed. At least some of the problems stemmed from the fact that AT&T is the only major national carrier using an information-technology vendor called Nightfire, a unit of Sterling, Va.-based Neustar Inc., to handle switching. The five other big national carriers all use Tampa-based TSI.

Douglas I. Brandon, AT&T's vice president of external affairs, said in a letter to the FCC last week that AT&T has solved most of the "interoperability problems" between Nightfire and TSI, as well as problems specific to Nightfire software that led agents' computers to "either freeze or crash, causing additional delays." Brandon said AT&T has worked through almost all of the backlog of requests from its subscribers to switch to other carriers.

Sean P. Huck, a software training specialist from Roslindale, said AT&T took more than four days to make the switch after he went to a Radio Shack store on Nov. 24 to order Verizon Wireless service.

Some consumers, however, have said their switches went well. Matthew Glauber, a financial services worker from Allston, said that when he switched from Sprint PCS to Verizon, "It was awesome. It happened that day, in about four hours. It was a lot easier than I thought it would be."

Having read accounts of start-up glitches with number portability, Roland Houle of Ashland, whose family has four phones they had been using with AT&T Wireless, waited until the first Sunday of December to switch them to Verizon, and found all the numbers had successfully been moved to Verizon by the next morning.

Consumers also appear to be showing little immediate interest in moving landline phone numbers to wireless service. At Verizon Communications Inc., the largest US phone company, no more than several hundred to a few thousand customers have moved their numbers to cellphones, according to people close to the company. Verizon spokesman Jack Hoey would not comment on specific numbers but called the landline-to-wireless shift "an insignificant portion" of Verizon's 57 million local phone lines.

Roger Entner, a wireless analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston, said consumers have been wise to heed advice to wait for several weeks while carriers work out the kinks in their systems.

"It was the largest-scale information-technology implementation in history, probably, and it showed. This was far from just rocky. This was really, really bad. They didn't see anything like the volumes of customer traffic some people had predicted, and it still fell apart."

But, Entner said, as the industry nears the end of the first month of rolling out the new policy, "The industry has done a tremendous job improving their performance, and they have worked together very, very well," setting the stage for number portability to begin to make a noticeable impact in the first half of this coming year.

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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