Originally created 09/29/03

For phone numbers, wired-wireless distinction fades



NEW YORK -- The coming freedom to keep your cell phone number when changing wireless companies has overshadowed a possibly more revolutionary change also due this fall: the power to move a number from a regular wired phone to a mobile handset.

While traditional local phone companies see the government-mandated change as an unfair invitation for wireless rivals to steal their core customers, they say they'll be ready by a Nov. 24 deadline to fulfill certain requests by customers who want a home or office number to become a cell phone number.

The new rules also require that cellular companies be prepared to transfer a mobile number to a landline phone, though such requests are expected to be somewhat scarce at a time when millions of people have gone all-wireless at home and at work.

Anthony Loiacono, 33, a technology consultant for Synergy Architect in New York, already has all calls to his office and home numbers automatically forwarded to ring on his cell phone, even when he's in his office or apartment.

The next logical step, he said, would be to transfer his office phone number to his cell phone.

"Cell phone coverage is so effective now. They've made great strides, so the convenience of having one phone or one phone number outweighs the convenience of having a landline," Loiacono said.

Besides, he noted, "I pay quite a bit for forwarding services, so it would save a lot of money to use my business number as my primary."

It's not so clear, however, how many of the nation's 150 million cell phone users will jump at the opportunity to move a wired number to a wireless phone. Many, especially business users, have already widely disseminated their existing wireless numbers to important contacts.

Still, the research firm Gartner Dataquest recently estimated that nearly 10 percent of residential phone customers would convert their home telephones to wireless if they could keep their phone numbers.

Forecasts aside, not all consumers or businesses will have that option right away.

Although all four of the local Bell telephone companies say they will meet the November deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission to comply with its new rules, the companies vary in how they interpret those rules.

The question essentially boils down to a debate over what constitutes a local calling area.

Telephone numbers have always been assigned according to geography, with the first three digits after the area code traditionally corresponding to a specific neighborhood or similar-size area known as a "rate center."

But because the government was intent on letting the young wireless market develop more freely than the highly regulated wireline industry, the wireless map was carved up into much larger calling areas.

Therefore, although the rate center is the smallest geographic designation in the local wireline network, there are usually numerous rate centers located within the larger "local" calling areas used by the wireless industry.

That difference extends to the way phone numbers are assigned.

In the wired world, phone numbers still correspond to a specific rate center and can only be used in that locale. But because cell phone users roam freely from rate center to rate center, wireless companies don't hand out numbers to customers based precisely on where they live.

Instead, wireless numbers that would normally be associated with a single rate center are loosely associated with multiple neighboring rate centers as well.

As a result, people who move locally - but to a different rate center - can't keep the same home phone number, even though they could keep their cell numbers whether they moved locally or across the country.

The debate now is under what circumstances people will be allowed to switch.

If a residential customer wants to move a home number to a wireless company that already has phone numbers in that person's rate center, then there should be no problem.

The issue, which both landline and wireless carriers have asked the FCC to clarify, is whether local phone companies must also hand over a landline number to a cellular company that doesn't already have similar numbers from the same rate center.

Although all four Bells contend they are not required to do so under current rules, Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. say they will fulfill such requests so long as the wireless carrier receiving it operates within a zone that's considerably larger than a neighborhood-sized rate center.

However, SBC Communications Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. do not plan to do the same unless the FCC changes its rules, preferably in a way that will also require wireless companies to provide the same flexibility.

Debbie Stipe, an industry consultant for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, said Verizon and BellSouth may want to be more accommodating because both are heavily engaged in the wireless business. BellSouth and SBC jointly own Cingular Wireless.

If they rankle customers who want to keep a wired number on their cell phone, those customers may seek out a rival cellular provider, she said.

"Customers aren't going to understand the issue of rate centers - they're just going to know they were denied," she said.

The FCC plans to clarify the rules, but will not say whether it will do so before the Nov. 24 deadline.