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Here are many of the key wireless LNP issues that retailers should know.
The Definition: For the past few years, consumers have been allowed to keep their homes' existing phone numbers when switching from an incumbent landline carrier to a competing landline carrier. In most cases, consumers have also been able to take their landline phone number with them when they move, but only if their old home and new home are both within the same area.
Now, under the FCC's wireless local number portability (wireless LNP) mandate, wireless subscribers will be able to take their current wireless-phone number with them when they switch to a competing wireless carrier. Consumers will also be able to port their current landline phone number to a wireless phone.
The Deadline: Under the FCC's mandate, consumers in the top 100 metropolitan statistical areas must be allowed beginning Nov. 24 to transfer ("port") their wireless-phone number from one wireless carrier network to another. Consumers will also be allowed to transfer a landline number to a wireless phone. In both cases, there will be limits.
In smaller markets, beginning Nov. 24, wireless LNP must be implemented only after a single wireless carrier in that market makes a request to competitors. State public utilities commissions can also make the request. Once the request is made, carriers have 30 to 180 days to upgrade their hardware and software to make porting possible.
Most analysts expect that most, but not all, major carriers will implement the mandate on time in most of the top 100 markets, creating a patchwork of LNP compliance that's bound to confuse customers and salespeople. The analysts expect most carriers to comply in most markets because of competitive fears, potential consumer backlash and FCC fines.
Wireless LNP was delayed three times at the carriers' request, but in June a federal appeals court ruled against carriers that sought to overturn the FCC decision.
Wireless Porting Time: The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) said the wireless industry is committed to completing wireless-to-wireless porting within 2.5 hours. Carriers might use a fax to notify other carriers of a porting request, or they might use an automated electronic clearinghouse system. Nonetheless, "either way, it's going to take time, and that's why the period allotted is up to 2.5 hours," said Laurie Itkin, Leap Wireless government affairs director.
In the long term, as carriers smooth out the process, "it [the porting interval] should be almost instantaneous," added analyst Albert Lin of American Technology Research. In the short term, however, Lin expects carriers' porting intervals to exceed the 2.5-hour goal. In other countries, it takes from three to 25 days to port a number between wireless phones.
Landline-to-Wireless: Landline carriers want a longer interval up to four days, which is the landline industry's standard time for porting a landline number from one home to another.
By Labor Day, the FCC plans to issue guidance on an allowable landline-to-wireless porting interval, but once the FCC issues its guidance, landline carriers could seek a formal FCC rulemaking that would delay implementation by months.
Activation time: The time it takes for dealers to conduct a credit check and activate a ported phone will increase only by a few minutes even if porting intervals hit the max, said Leap's Itkin. In addition, consumers will be able to leave the store with an activated phone even if the porting process hasn't been completed. (During the porting interval, however, the phone won't be fully operational. See story, p. 36).
"It will probably take longer to activate the ported phone because the first carrier would need to send information to the second carrier," said Itkin.
Despite the additional step, a CTIA spokesman said, "The goal of the wireless industry is for porting activations to closely match the timeframes associated with any new customer activation currently experienced today."
Dealers activating a ported phone need only contact the new carrier, which will contact the old carrier or a number clearing house to initiate the transfer, said America Technology's Lin.
Limits on wireless-to-wireless porting: Individual carriers aren't allowed to impose restrictive conditions on the porting process, the FCC's wireless telecommunications bureau said in a letter to CTIA. Carriers are required under FCC rules "to port a number when they receive a valid request, and carriers many not refuse to port while attempting to collect fees or settle an account, or for other reasons unrelated to validating a customer's identity," the letter said.
The bureau noted, however, that "nothing in the Commission's rules would preclude carriers from considering a customer's creditworthiness in determining whether to offer service to any particular customer."
There is one restriction, however. The FCC mandates number portability, not location portability. Thus, consumers who want to keep their wireless phone number when they switch wireless carriers will be able to do so only if they still reside in the same area in which their previous phone was activated. As a result, consumers who move from New York to San Diego won't be able to keep their New York area code, or add a San Diego area code to their New York number, if they switch carriers after their move.
Limits on landline-to-wireless porting: Likewise, consumers who move to a new MSA won't be able to port their previous home's landline number to a wireless phone activated in the new MSA.
Additional restrictions could be forthcoming if the FCC accepts a proposal by landline operators to dramatically reduce the number of consumers eligible for landline-to-wireless porting. In CTIA's opinion, the proposal would prevent one of eight consumers from porting their landline number to a cellphone.
The FCC promises by Labor Day to issue guidance on this issue, which is essentially a dispute over competing definitions of local calling area.
For a landline carrier, a local calling area is the geographic area in which it isn't allowed to impose a toll charge on calls originating and terminating in the area. The term is usually synonymous with rate center, although in some cases, a local calling area even encompasses multiple rate centers.
For wireless carriers, the local calling area is much larger, covering the basic trading area (BTA) for which they have obtained a license. In a particular wireless BTA, the number of landline rate centers can reach into the hundreds.
The dispute comes down to this: Landline operators don't want to port a landline number to a wireless phone unless the wireless phone's carrier has already acquired a batch of phone numbers assigned to the same rate center as the landline number. In general, wireless carriers haven't acquired phone numbers from every rate center in their BTAs.
Sources: American Technology Research, CTIA, FCC, Leap Wireless, Mobile Ecosystem, Strategy Analytics, Verizon Wireless, Yankee Group.
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