Don’t leave! Pick me! Cell phone companies are blanketing the market with price cuts, extra minutes, premium services and sleek handsets to lure customers from rivals and make sure their own subscribers don’t bolt come Monday. That is when new federal rules will begin that allow legions of dissatisfied customers and bargain-hunters to switch wireless companies without losing their cell numbers.
Wireless phone companies tried hard to block the rule from taking effect, but are trying to make the best of it now that it is here, baiting customers with some of the most generous deals ever.
They are offering more minutes and cheaper rates, camera phones and other cutting-edge handsets, as well as enhanced features such as faster Internet connections and walkie-talkie services.
T-Mobile, for example, expanded its free weekend calling feature to include all day Friday, the busiest calling day of the week.
Sprint and Cingular have taken a similar tack, offering to roll back the start time for off-peak calling from 9 p.m. to 7 p.m. The option costs $5 a month at Sprint, and $7 at Cingular, which is also offering 500 extra minutes for customers to use if they exceed their monthly allotment.
This week, AT&T Wireless unveiled major upgrades in speed and features for its wireless data services. Next, the company plans to cut the charges for calls above a subscriber’s monthly allowance to 8 or 9 cents per minute, down from 25 to 40 cents. Previously, it also halved the charge for extra phones on an account to $9.99 a month.
Also this week, Sprint launched an aggressively priced walkie-talkie service, an area long dominated by Nextel, which along with Verizon Wireless has generally stood on the sidelines of the marketing frenzy.
But even Verizon, which is the market leader and insists there is no need to go beyond its normal holiday offers, is pushing a 2-for-1 deal on a Nokia handset and cut the price on an LG camera phone to $100 after a $50 mail-in rebate.
Most of these deals require an agreement to stay with the same company for a year or two.
“It’s a lot cheaper to keep an existing customer than acquire a new one,” said Cingular spokesman Clay Owen, noting that it costs about $350 in marketing and promotions to sign up each new customer.
If there’s one reason that many would-be switchers may choose to stay put for now, it’s that about 75 percent of the nation’s 152 million cell phone users are under contract and subject to stiff penalty fees if they terminate early.
Better deals ahead?
Even so, wireless companies are clearly eager to steal customers from their rivals, especially those subscribers with no contract or penalty fees to worry about. Many have wanted to switch for some time, but didn’t want to give up an established cell number.
“It’s a good idea, because you don’t have to tell everyone your new number,” said 21-year-old Kenny Richardson of Atlanta, the city with the highest percentage of households with mobile phones. “But then you have to deal with the new contracts.”
And, if the competition turns especially fierce, today’s bargains could prove a costly mistake compared with new deals down the road.
Verizon, Cingular and AT&T Wireless have set up Web pages where customers from other companies can pre-register to switch. Those customers can expect to receive phone calls or e-mails with cell phone deals. Other companies are providing information on their sites about how to switch over your number to them.
Estimates of how many people will switch vary widely, ranging from several million to as high as 30 million in the first year.
For the most part, cell phone companies haven’t pegged their promotions to the new phone number rules, which are mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. Instead, they are touting the deals as holiday sales pitches designed to offer the best service possible. Verizon, in particular, has tried to maintain a business-as-usual posture.
Meanwhile, the FCC on Thursday denied a request from a trade group to temporarily postpone the new rules.
“I don’t want to be arrogant here, but if you noticed, all of the other carriers are already doing their advertising and pre-positioning themselves,” said Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg during an earnings conference call Oct. 28. “This is an issue for everyone else to worry a lot about and for us to keep doing what we’re doing.”