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Untangling Your Wireless Number

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Untangling Your Wireless Number

Nikhil Hutheesing

Thanks to a newly passed regulation, you can keep your telephone number even if you switch cellular phone companies. But how do you make the change and determine which service is right for you? Consult the Web for answers.

Recently, my wife, Anita, called Verizon Wireless to switch her account from Sprint PCS now that the Federal Communications Commission has decreed that one's cell phone number need not change.

But after half an hour on the phone, a Verizon representative informed her that the service switch could not be done until she bought a new cell phone-one that worked with Verizon's service. A few hours later, equipped with a Nokia 3650 camera phone, she called back Verizon, but was told that her existing Sprint PCS number was blocked and so the number could not be transferred. Frustrated, she returned the phone and decided to stick with Sprint PCS--at least for now.

Apparently, my wife's experience is in no way unique. The Federal Communications Commission reports a record 2,394 complaints have been filed over the six weeks through the end of December from people frustrated trying to switch carriers. Many complain that the process of transferring numbers is taking up to five days, not two and a half hours as promised by the wireless operators.

Of the complaints, more than 50% have been targeted at AT&T Wireless. According to Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization serving consumer interests, its Web site has hundreds of angry wireless users lashing out about how long it can take to make the switch. Over half focused their complaints at AT&T Wireless, which is accused of not releasing its subscribers phone numbers so that a transfer can go through. (AT&T now blames Sterling, Va.-based NeuStar, whose software verifies orders from customers switching to or from AT&T Wireless.) The complaints are so great that in December the FCC started an investigation.

Given the inherent problems, is it worth it to change cell phone providers? Yes, but only if you approach the process well informed. Thankfully there are a number of Web sites that can take the pain out of switching providers.

The first thing you should do is brush up on Local Number Portability using one of two sites, and was created by the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. The site offers detailed information about the FCC mandate, has a "frequently asked questions" section and offers consumer tips that you should follow before you start to switch carriers. One tip: Make sure that you know the terms of your contract. By switching now, you could be subject to an early termination fee. was started by a group of European and American telecom executives who lived through the chaos in Europe when number portability was implemented a few years ago. Here, you'll find all of the details about the process and well-attended forums where you can read practical advice from others. Four forums are dedicated to number portability issues, eight to discussions about wireless service providers and 10 focused on cell phone manufacturers.

In the Sprint wireless service provider forum, the posters are very bitter. One poster complains that Sprint PCS has imposed a number portability fee on her statement yet refuses to let her switch to Cingular. She says that she had to ask for her number to be switched three times and on the third time, the Sprint representative insisted that she had never called before. Others chime in about rude and ignorant sales reps who don't care if the customer stays with the company or not.

Once you understand what the new regulation involves and what to expect if you call to switch carriers, head to It is probably the best all-around number portability portal available. The site was launched by InPhonic, a Washington, D.C.-based provider of service plans and phones. Essentially Wirefly is an independent online exchange that lets consumers research, compare and purchase cell phones and calling plans offered by all the national wireless carriers and many regional service providers. The site also offers customer-satisfaction ratings. (T-Mobile and Verizon are rated among the best for customer care; Sprint PCS comes in at the bottom.)

If you happen to live in one of the 100 metropolitan markets that now allows you to switch your carrier and keep the number, Wirefly will let you cross compare calling plans. One great feature is a tool that incorporates your historical cell phone usage patterns so that it can come up with cost comparisons tailored to your needs. Wirefly says many of its users have cut their bills as much as 30%. Once you have chosen a service, Wirefly lets you transfer your current cell phone number to a new wireless carrier. Instead of hours on the phone, placing the request on the Web takes about five minutes and then Wirefly handles the entire transfer process, including shipping you a new cell phone and activating it on the new carrier's network. Once the transfer is done, your current cell phone service will be automatically terminated.

The only real drawback to the service is that you have to find the plan and get the phone before you know if your number is actually portable. And even then, it could be 24 hours before Wirefly lets you know if there is a problem. Still, using the Web is better than endlessly waiting on the phone as my wife did.

Another useful site,, does not let you transfer your phone number over the Web. Still, it lets you compare wireless phones and plans as well as Internet access rates and cable television service. You can shop by carrier, rate plan (say under $50 per month), the kind of phone you want and even your lifestyle (Hardcore Techie, Urban Professional or Average Joe among others).

Of course you can also get comparisons on phones and rate plans at (Go to On the drop down menu, click on "cell phones." In the search field just below, type in "plans." Then hit "go."). Plug in your area code and you can choose from 123 plans plus phone options. A major drawback here is that you won't find any plans from the biggest carrier in the business, Verizon Wireless. The comparisons for other service providers on the site cover everything from total minutes offered to roaming charges, long distance charges, activation and cancellation fees. Amazon also offers a primer on local number portability and step-by-step instructions on how to make a transfer to T-Mobile, Sprint PCS and Nextel, but the steps are not listed for AT&T Wireless or Verizon Wireless. Still, the information is useful since the process between service providers differs only slightly.

Of course, if you use your phone only for emergencies, you may want to switch service providers so that you can get the lowest rate., also called, helps you to find the cheapest plans available. These plans are often not marketed by service providers, but they do exist. If all you want is 30 minutes of talk time per month, AT&T Wireless offers a rock bottom new plan for just $20 per month.

So far, only 80,000 people nationwide have used the new regulations to switch carriers. However, as some 60 million cell phone contracts begin to expire over the next 12 months, switching may pick up. So if you plan to change carriers, you can cut down the angst with a little Web homework.


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