They've Got Your Number

Switching Cell Phone Services Without Losing Your Digits

Q: I've been itching to ditch my crummy wireless carrier for months, but the whole chore of changing my number has always stopped me short. Now I hear they're gonna make it so you can take your number from one provider to another. What's the scoop?

Come November 24, the wireless industry will no longer have you by the proverbial short and curlies. After nearly eight years of legal wrangling, so-called wireless local number portability (WLNP) will kick in, allowing you to ditch your godawful provider without ordering a new set of business cards. They'll still try to screw you on the way out the door, of course, but if you've ever wanted to play hardball, now's the time.

Believe it or not, WLNP should've been a reality way back in the Clinton Era. The Federal Communications Commission mandated that wireless numbers be transferable in 1996, but the matter's been tied up in the courts ever since. The carriers bitched and moaned about the costs of switching over customers, and they're still at it, charging fees between $1 and $2 per month for the change. Despite some last-minute petitions from the likes of Cingular and Alltel, though, the November 24 deadline seems set.

Now upwards of 50 million cell phone toters are expected to turn traitor, for a "churn rate" that could near 35 percent. Don't think it'll be so easy to reach a customer service rep in those first few days; rather than endure endless Muzak on hold, you might want to wait a week or three until the rush abates. (The one exception may be Verizon Wireless, the only carrier to openly embrace WLNP; the company will have a special call center for rushing switch-over requests.)

Playing the waiting game may be tough, given that carriers will be offering some sweet deals to snatch your business. No one's showing their hand yet, but the buzz is that free handsets will be one of the most common perks. If you've been meaning to ditch your brick-sized relic, now's the chance. After some initial misgivings, Mr. Roboto's warmed to the latest generation of picture phones, especially T-Mobile's current crop.

Before you sign up, make sure your new carrier is acting in accordance with the regulations laid down by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the industry's main lobby. The salesman may not mention this, but you're entitled to both a 14-day risk-free trial and a map that shows where the dead zones start. Check out wow-com.com for the full 10-point list of consumer rights.

The carriers aren't entirely going out like lambs, alas. Despite the FCC's instructions that all switch-overs be carried out as expeditiously as possible, some carriers are warning it could take nearly two weeks. And if you're on a contract, expect to be charged a hefty termination fee. Mr. Roboto fully understands if you're not psyched to pony up $150 merely for the "privilege" of changing carriers. If that's the case, though, don't let your wireless company know.

In the days running up to WLNP, if you're considered a high-value customer, you may get a friendly call from your current provider, trying to suss out whether you intend to jump ship. Mr. Roboto's advice: Even if you're planning on staying put, lie and say you're bolting. The telemarketer on the other end will be authorized to offer some "retention bonuses" to keep you on board. You probably won't get a rate cut, but they might toss in, say, free text messaging. Dishonesty has its rewards.

Even if you don't get the call—likely because you spend less than $75 a month—you can still leverage WLNP as an extortion tool. In late October, give your carrier's toll-free number a dial and pull an angry old man act—say you're bummed about the coverage and you're going to switch if things don't get better right quick. You will probably be transferred to a rep who can hand out a perk, like an early starting time for night minutes. This was the carrot offered to Mr. Roboto after he recently called to give Sprint PCS a piece of his mind. No, it won't stop him from skipping out come Zero Day—what, no service near the Flatiron Building?—but it's nice to hear the Man quaking in his boots.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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