WASHINGTON -- Consumers will be able to switch their home phone numbers to cellular phones later this month, thanks to new federal rules allowing them to drop conventional service and go wireless without the hassle of getting a new number.
The Federal Communications Commission rules released Monday also will allow a limited number of wireless customers to keep their numbers if they switch to traditional landline phones.
The FCC has already told cell phone users that they will be able to keep their phone numbers when they change wireless carriers.
The new rules take effect Nov. 24 in the largest metropolitan areas. They will apply to everyone else beginning May 24.
"This gives consumers much sought-after flexibility and it provides further competitive stimulus to telephone industry competition," Commissioner Michael Copps said. "This makes it a win-win situation for consumers and businesses alike."
As many as 7 million consumers use cell phones exclusively. Jeff Maszal, research director for The Management Network Group, an Overland Park, Kan.-based communications consulting firm, said an additional 19 million consumers are likely to drop their landlines for cell phones now that they can keep their home or business phone numbers.
The cellular industry praised the new rules.
"Competition has proven to be the strongest force for falling prices and increased innovation, and America's landline telephone customers will have choices like never before," said Steve Largent, the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who now heads the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
But the association representing the local phone companies that dominate residential service, such as BellSouth and SBC Communications, said the new rules will allow wireless companies to take away their customers while restricting their ability to do the same to cell phone users.
"Instead of ensuring the benefits of a vibrant voice market, the FCC severely limited consumer choice by sharply reducing the ability of wireline providers to actively compete for customers," said Walter B. McCormick Jr., president of the U.S. Telecom Association.
The reason has to do with the different local service areas for wireless and landline companies. Under the FCC regulations, a phone customer can unplug a corded phone and transfer the number to a cell phone if the wireless company serves the same area. But a customer wishing to transfer a number from a cell phone to a landline can only do that if the exchange -- the three digits following the area code -- falls within the same geographic area, known as a "rate center," in which the house or business is located.
As a result, local phone companies will be able to go after only about an eighth of cell phone customers, while the wireless industry has no similar restrictions, BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey said.
Commissioners acknowledged the inequities, but said the chance to inject competition into the local phone market could not be passed up.
"Although, in the short term, wireline carriers will have more limited opportunities to benefit, ... I was simply not willing to block consumers from taking advantage of the porting (switching) opportunities that are technically feasible today," Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said.
Landline companies must transfer numbers within four business days. The FCC said it would look at whether to shorten the time.
Cell phone customers who want to switch wireless companies could have new service as quickly as 2 1/2 hours after the new carrier has contacted the old provider. The transfer will take longer if more than one line is involved.
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Federal Communications Commission: http://www.fcc.gov