updated 5/24/2004 1:52:29 PM ET 2004-05-24T17:52:29

Starting today, millions of people in small cities and rural areas can take advantage of federal rules allowing cellular users to keep their phone numbers when switching to new wireless carriers.

The rules first went into effect last November in the 100 most populous metropolitan areas. On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission expanded its "number portability" rules to the rest of the country.

Consumers also can transfer a number from a traditional landline phone to a cell phone if the exchange -- the three digits following the area code -- falls within the same geographic area.

The extension of the rules is not expected to be met with an enormous surge in requests for transfers since most of the country has already had the opportunity to switch. The FCC estimates the rules covered about 70 percent of the population when implemented Nov. 24 in the top markets.

For the remaining 30 percent, making the switch should be a mostly smooth process, says K. Dane Snowden, head of the commission's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

"The majority of carriers are ready," said Snowden, though he added, "We do anticipate some hiccups initially in this process."

For some carriers, he said, delays in transferring accounts are likely.

The FCC set a goal that the transfer from one wireless company to another should take only about 2 1/2 hours. Many consumers, however, complained early on that transfers were taking days, and in some cases weeks.

The FCC logged 2,400 complaints in the first month after the rules took effect last year. AT&T Wireless received the most complaints, and blamed a software glitch for the problems.

Since then, complaints have slowed sharply, with only about 400 for April.

About 2.6 million wireless customers have switched to new carriers since Nov. 24, according to the FCC. More than 217,000 cut the cord entirely, moving from a traditional landline phone to a wireless one. A smaller number -- 5,400 -- went from a cell phone to a landline phone.

Rural consumers may still have to wait
A trade group for wireless companies expressed confidence that cellular firms will be ready to handle the additional transfers. But Travis Larson, spokesman for the Washington-based Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, questioned whether smaller traditional telephone companies are prepared.

Larson said some 900 rural wireline companies have petitioned their state utility commissions for waivers, asking for more time or to be excused altogether from the mandate.

"We're afraid that rural consumers won't see the benefits of competition if those waivers are granted," he said.

A spokeswoman for United States Telecom Association, an industry trade group, said rural companies are doing all they can to comply with the commission's mandate.

"There are tremendous costs associated with porting numbers for the first time in rural areas, so some service providers are working with state regulators to assess the public interest of meeting the May 24th compliance date," Allison Remsen said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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