New federal rules take effect today that allow consumers to keep their cellphone numbers if they switch wireless phone providers or to switch their existing land-line home phone numbers to wireless phones.
Long resisted by the major phone companies, the changes are expected to further shake up telecommunications by removing a major obstacle to competition -- the ability to keep one's cherished phone number.
But experts said telephone companies might not be immediately prepared to accommodate "local number portability," or LNP, as the industry refers to it.
"This could be a really bumpy ride," said Ron Cowles, vice president for Gartner Inc., a research company in Connecticut. "Not all phone companies are prepared for LNP, so we're expecting a lot of little problems in the beginning. Besides, you'll probably see better rates offered if you wait awhile longer."
By some predictions, as many as one-third of the country's 152 million cellphone users could switch providers over the next couple of years. Perhaps one-tenth of the country's 179 million wire-line customers could move their home numbers to wireless phones.
The industry already has invested more than $1 billion to prepare for today's rule change.
Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. carrier, with nearly 35 million subscribers, opened a customer service center in Tennessee and packed it with nearly 1,000 service representatives to deal solely with "porting" requests.
Sprint PCS, the fourth-largest carrier, has focused on network improvements to expand its coverage area. And AT&T; Wireless, the second-largest, has been busy signing agreements with competitors to ensure the porting process functions smoothly.
Beginning today, customers shouldn't have to wait more than 2 1/2 hours to switch a number from one wireless carrier to another, and about four days to switch a number from land-line to wireless, the Federal Communications Commission estimates.
For companies, the procedure is more complicated -- with anywhere from 12 to 100 steps.
Wireless carriers aren't publicly discussing what tactics they'll employ to lure customers, but experts say consumers should expect a marketing war. From more free minutes to promises of better service to offers of low-priced but snazzier phones, customers probably will be inundated.
It's been a long wait. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, a major goal was to allow consumers to retain phone numbers when switching providers. The ability to keep one's number when switching wire-line carriers began in 1997.
Wireless companies, however, fought number portability for years.
They succeeded in delaying its launch three times. Executives contended that the cost and complexity were unreasonable. The industry already was competitive, they said.
But the FCC and the courts upheld the rules for wireless portability this year.
Two weeks ago, the FCC upped the ante by expanding portability to extend between wire-line and wireless.
And on Friday, a federal appeals court rejected a request to halt the new rule, denying a bid by the U.S. Telecom Assn. for more time to implement the change.