Kirsten Dixson was proud to be an early adopter when she signed up her career coaching business for Internet-based telephone service earlier this year.
She soon came to regret her tech savvy when bad sound quality made her long for traditional phone service. Then the other shoe dropped — she couldn't take her number with her to another provider.
As so-called voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, gets more popular, providers are faced with a relatively new issue: how to handle customer turnover. There are no exact figures on how many customers have tried to switch their numbers away from VoIP providers, but the Federal Communications Commission says that a total of 41.7 million phone numbers got transferred last year, including land lines and cellular.
The number of U.S. residential VoIP customers increased by 750,000 in the second quarter to 2.44 million, according to Bernstein Research. That growth rate is expected to accelerate.
The FCC does not require VoIP providers to follow number portability requirements the way wireless and regular phone companies must.
But that could soon change. The issue falls into something of a gray area, and legal experts disagree on whether the rulings apply to VoIP providers.
"The issue is pending before the FCC, but if you look the way number portability has been addressed in the wireless context, it would be fair to say it should be extended to voice over IP," said Roz Allen, a partner in the government practice at the law firm Holland + Knight.
The issue has also caught the attention of both the House and Senate, which recently came out with legislative proposals that would give VoIP users the same rights to number portability.
Part of the reason companies have lagged in offering number portability is because it's so difficult. To move a number, both companies — the one being dumped and the new provider — need to verify information and coordinate on a transfer date.
Different providers require slightly different information and incomplete or slight inconsistencies in the fillouts — St. versus Street, for instance — can cause requests to be kicked back. Improvements have been made, but more are needed.
To enable the process, phone carriers have had to invest millions on new software programs, developing new procedures and hiring additional personnel. Larger companies, such as Verizon Communications Inc. or Comcast Corp. have largely automated the process. But smaller companies don't have the same kind of resources to invest, which means that dealing with them means communicating by fax and phone.
"Many chose initially not to port numbers because of the complexities involved," said Dan Kokoruda, a program manager at consulting firm Business Edge who has worked with a number of carriers on business and technical issues from number portability. "It's a very onerous process," he added.
VoIP providers would do best to ensure that customers can transfer their numbers easily, said Kenneth DeGraff, policy analyst at Consumers Union. "Otherwise, they're inviting increased regulation on themselves."
After some efforts, VoIP companies started letting new customers use their existing phone numbers. It's been a good selling point: get a cheaper service and keep your old number. Vonage, the largest VoIP provider with a customer base of 1 million, says that 66 percent of its new customers bring their numbers with them. AT&T's CallVantage said a "substantial" number does so.
But defecting customers who want to take the number with them are another issue.
VoIP companies are becoming quite "good at receiving ported numbers. But because it's such a small and nascent market, companies are inexperienced at losing customers at this point and the processes are not ironed out as much," says Jan Dawson, research director at Ovum.
The result is that customers using VoIP may or may not be able to take their numbers with them should they choose to change service. Even companies that allow departing customers to take numbers with them sometimes have restrictions or face difficulties.
Vonage, CallVantage and Verizon’s VoiceWing and say they let users transfer numbers out to any provider.
Broadvoice, the provider that Dixson used, lets users transfer out but says it's sometimes unable to hand over numbers it has assigned. That was the reason for Dixson's unsuccessful number transfer.
"That's one of the challenges that everyone has ... we're trying to figure out how to make customers more aware of everything," said spokesman Gene Cornfield.