WASHINGTON – Phone companies said they are ready for “local number portability” rules that kick in Monday, but concede that there are also likely to be glitches with the new and eagerly anticipated process.
Under the new rules, phone customers in the country’s largest 100 metropolitan areas will be able to take their local phone number with them when they switch carriers, whether they want to move that number from cell to cell, home phone to cell phone or cell to home.
Most of Maryland falls under the Monday deadline. The entire country will be covered in six months.
Phone companies in the state said they have added staff and spent millions upgrading their technology to accommodate the change, but they also say they are not sure what kind of response they will get or what problems they will run into.
“We want to set proper expectations,” said Bryan Zidar, a spokesman for T-Mobile U.S.A. “The process is not going to be smooth or elegant . . . the switch may take 24 hours.”
Phone officials are urging patience at the outset.
“I would recommend to customers that they not come in during the first week of number portability,” said Lisa Ihde, spokeswoman for Sprint PCS. “There are surely going to be lessons to be learned.”
Verizon Wireless officials said they are ready for the change, but note that operations of both the old and new carriers must go smoothly and every piece of information has to match on the old and new accounts for portability to work seamlessly.
Carriers and the FCC estimate that a wireless-to-wireless phone number switch could take anywhere from a few hours to a full day, depending on hurdles. Officials estimate that it may take a few days to transfer a phone number from a landline to a cell phone or vice versa.
FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said he would not be surprised if there are some “hiccups” in the process, but he does not know of any particular problems and he expects all carriers to be ready to go Monday.
“We’re confident that they’ve been given enough time to do so,” Powell said.
He hailed portability last week as a “new freedom” for phone users.
“Your phone number belongs to you and you can take it with you,” he said.
But no one knows just how many people will opt for that new freedom Monday.
“So many analysts have been saying in their reported comments that people may not want to be the guinea pigs in the first days or first week or two,” said John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.
But officials also noted that the start of portability coincides with the holiday shopping season. That will bring more cell phone customers into the stores, making it a likely time for people to want to give a new service a try while keeping that old number.
For those reasons, Zidar speculated that Monday is “going to be busy.” And the fourth quarter “is typically when we add more customers,” he said.
Zidar said T-Mobile stores have noticed that “there’s certainly a lot of attention around number portability.”
Other carriers have also had people coming into their stores with questions.
Keith Anderson, a district manager for Verizon Wireless covering Washington and most of Maryland, has seen “a considerable number of customers coming into stores that are hearing about local number portability.”
“There’s a lot of curiosity about it,” Anderson said.
Cingular Wireless spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman said, “The big thing is just staffing up so that we are able to answer consumer’s questions” come Monday.
“It will be kind of a wait-and-see situation” she said.
Sprint PCS’s Ihde hopes that people will hold off and expects to see a phase-in of demand. But she also knows that some will not be able to resist.
“There are people waiting for the 24th — there are people with phone in hand,” Ihde said.