They'll Switch, Not Fight

Thanksgiving Day comes early this year for disgruntled cellular telephone customers, who, starting Monday, can take their existing phone numbers with them when they switch providers. Thirty million of the nation's nearly 150 million cellphone owners are expected to switch in the first year.

Those who want to change aren't just chatty teenagers prowling for new cellphones, status symbols packed with ever more (and costlier) gimmicks. One survey suggests that 25% of firms with 500 or fewer employees will switch rather than struggle with their present services' lousy geographic coverage and unintelligible bills.

"Number portability" also eliminates the trouble, time and cost of printing new business cards, letterheads and marketing materials.

The cellular industry has stalled since 1996 in providing number portability. That's when Congress made it the law that consumers in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas could carry their numbers with them when they made a change.

The industry won reprieves on the grounds of cost and complexity. Could it be that it feared the stampede that's about to occur? Now the industry is lobbying Congress to delay changes until after the holidays so firms can benefit from new contracts on cellphones given as gifts.

And what does it say to the industry that millions of customers value a phone number more than voice-activated dialing and other whiz-bang technology?

Federal regulators also have told local phone companies to let customers apply their land numbers to cellphones -- an order the firms threaten to block by filing lawsuits.

With as many as 1 million cellphone customers shifting services on the first day they can, consumers should brace themselves for glitches if they switch. They still must wrestle with service contracts and transferring stored numbers to their new phones. But the telecom industry should strive to make transfers as painless as possible and halt its foot-dragging. Those that do will prosper; the newly freer market will surely punish the laggards.

A map showing where number portability initially will be available can be found at, along with consumer tips.

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