Nearly 8 million keep their cell numbers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Nearly 8 million mobile phone users have switched carriers and kept their cell numbers since a new rule allowing that flexibility went into effect one year ago, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Almost 750,000 more people have moved either a home or office phone number to a cell phone, the FCC said Wednesday on the one-year anniversary of the agency’s “number portability” order.

The agency reported that by the end of October, 8.5 million people had taken advantage of the rule which took effect in the nation’s 100 biggest markets on Nov. 24, 2003. That includes 7.8 million who switched from one cell phone company to another.

The FCC also revealed that the pace picked up significantly when the rules were extended nationally to include smaller and rural markets in late spring, jumping from roughly 700,000 customer switches in March, April and May to more than 1 million in June and 950,000 in July.

The figures suggest that millions of cell phone users may have been frustrated with their cell phone service but were hesitant to switch providers because they didn’t want to give up a phone number which was familiar to friends, business associates and family.

However, the tally is well short of many forecasts issued a year ago, some of which predicted that up to 30 million people might switch carriers in the first year.

Biggest loser apparently AT&T Wireless
None of the national carriers has disclosed specific numbers on customers gained or lost, but widespread reports throughout the industry have proclaimed Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA Inc. the biggest winners.

The biggest loser is believed to have been AT&T Wireless Services Inc., which was acquired last month by Cingular Wireless to form the nation's biggest cell phone company with 47.25 million subscribers.

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC of Britain, has seen its subscriber base jump from about 36 million just before the new rule took effect to more than 42 million at the end of this past September.

T-Mobile, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG of Germany, added 4.2 million subscribers during the 12 months ended Sept. 30, growing from 12.1 million to 16.3 million.

It is unclear how many of the customers gained by Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile were first-time cell subscribers and how many defected from rivals.

By contrast, Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless stumbled badly as the new rule went into effect. The carrier was unable to activate new customers for weeks in November 2003 due to serious glitches with a computer upgrade which was meant to beef up customer services and sales efforts in time for portability.

The FCC tally of wireline-to-wireless number switches was 732,000 at the end of October.

The new rules also saw a limited number of people go the other way with a treasured phone number: About 9,000 cell phone numbers were switched to a wired phone line in a home or office.