For years, U.S. consumers dissatisfied with their wireless phone service felt stuck. Even if they got rotten customer service or felt gouged by hidden charges, many chose not to switch companies because doing so meant getting a brand-new phone number. No wonder people cheered when the wireless number portability (WNP) law -- which lets customers keep their phone numbers when switching carriers, known as "porting" -- went into effect Nov. 24.
Yet consumers are fast finding out that porting isn't the high-tech slam dunk they thought it would be. Availability is limited, and the process can be complicated and costly. According to customer-service and billing provider Convergys (CVG), only 11% of U.S. consumers even understand how WNP works. So, to help you figure out if you can switch and what to expect, here are the answers to some key questions:
So, can everyone switch service providers and keep their numbers?
No. The service is available only in the top 100 metropolitan markets. Also, porting is possible only for customers whose wireless phone numbers are assigned to the same geographic area as the provider whose service they want to switch to.
No kidding. To figure out if you're eligible for porting your number, as it's being called, check with the service provider you'd like to sign up with.
So if they tell me yes, I simply cancel my existing plan and sign up with the new service provider?
No. If you cancel your existing plan first, you'll lose your number -- and keeping your phone number is probably half the reason you wanted to switch.
According to Andrea Ayers, director of business development at Convergys, a lot of consumers have made the unfortunate mistake of canceling prematurely. What you should do is this: Keep your current service, then go to the new service provider of your choice and ask them to do the porting. They'll take care of canceling your existing contract and getting you going on a new plan.
That sounds easy. Too easy. Will it cost me anything?
Indeed, you're right to be suspicious. You'll have to pay a fee of $150 to $250 to your current service provider if you break your
existing contract (and 70% of U.S. wireless subscribers are under contract today, estimates Jonathan Schildkraut, an analyst with investment bank S.G. Cowen). If you have a family plan, you have to multiply that amount by the number of family members using the service.
Call your current provider and ask a service rep to figure out how much you'll owe. But there's more. Different service providers use different network technologies, frequencies, and software. So, in most cases, you'll have to buy a new phone when switching. You can minimize the pain, though, by getting on board with a provider that offers a free phone. You can view a list of ongoing promotions on consumer site www.CellUpdate.com.
All right, I still think it's worth spending the money. So how do I find the company I want to switch to?
First, research different wireless plans online. Keep in mind that features of your old plan won't transfer to your new phone. Talk to neighbors about their experience with dead spots. You can find out how different carriers rate by geography at market researcher J.D. Power's site.
I've found the plan of my dreams. Now what?
Go to a store of the service provider. Bring your latest wireless bill or your current contract, so the new company can verify that you have current service and own your mobile number. You also need to bring in your cell phone. The service provider will take care of the rest.
So I walk in, I walk out, and I'm switched?
Not exactly. You walk out with two phones: your old mobile and your new one. You'll probably need to carry both with you for anywhere from a few hours to several days before porting takes effect. Until then, you'll get calls on your old phone. When your number is switched, you'll start getting calls on your new phone. Then, your old phone will be useless.
How will I know when porting has taken effect?
With a few carriers, such as the fourth-largest service provider Sprint PCS (PCS), you can check the status of your porting process on their Web site. Otherwise, you'll know because your new phone is working, and your old one isn't.
So, then I'm done, right? And I can just toss my old phone?
After your new phone begins working, call your old carrier to make sure it's not billing you anymore. Most carriers pro-rate billing when customers switch. And once you're ported, recycle your phone through a store, or do it online. One of just many online options is www.CollectiveGood.com.
It seems I ought to be able to do this whole process online.
While you can port through various Web sites, such as CellUpdate.com, experts say because the process is complicated, it's better to switch in person.
Why is it so complicated and time-consuming?
Good question. First, the process is new, so the wrinkles aren't ironed out. Second, your old service provider has no incentive to make this smooth sailing for you. Many refuse to set up extra customer-service reps to help answer your questions, says Thomas Watts, an analyst with S.G. Cowen.
Also, Watts cautions that the old carrier can refuse to switch you if your new service provider makes even the tiniest mistake -- for instance, if it fails to provide your old carrier with your middle initial.
I can port my home phone number onto my wireless phone, right?
If you live in one of the top 100 metro areas, yes. But that kind of porting can take even longer -- as much as three weeks, some service providers say.
So if I don't live in one of the 100 top metro areas, will I ever be able to port?
The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that service providers operating outside of the top 100 markets must make number portability available on May 24, 2004. However, smaller carriers operating in these markets are fighting the rule. So, maybe May, maybe not. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.