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Analyst: Enterprises poised to benefit from carrier swapping rules

Jim Rendon, News Writer
Beginning Nov. 24, U.S. wireless customers gained the option of keeping their phone numbers when they switch from one wireless carrier to another. The change, known as wireless local number portability (WLNP) was forced on reluctant carriers by the Federal Communications Commission.

While WLNP is ultimately beneficial to wireless customers, Bob Egan, president and founder of the North Providence, R.I.-based research firm Mobile Competency, predicted plenty of problems with the implementation. Six weeks after the launch date, we caught up with Egan to get his take on how the carriers are doing so far.

How have the carriers fared with WLNP?
Bob Egan: The carriers were not ready. For starters, this happened during the holiday season, which is the busiest time of year for the carriers. On Nov. 24, in order to move someone's service from one carrier to another, or to 'port' the service, the carriers required 12 separate pieces of information that had to be exactly correct. If any one piece of information conflicted between the two carriers, the whole process broke down. After the first week or so, they got smart and changed that to three or four pieces of information. On average, it took about 45 minutes to process the information for a single customer.

How many customers decided to take advantage of WLNP?
Egan: The good news is that, largely, consumers and business stood on the sidelines and missed the chaos. Three weeks into this

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process, about 500,000 people had changed their service. The first day, about 100,000 people went through the process. Then it dropped to about 30,000 a day.

What kinds of problems did the carriers have?
Egan: The carriers were making software changes right up to and through Nov. 24. There were other process-related issues as well. For example, some carriers were only open for business hours in their time zone, so if someone in California was trying to change their service to an East Coast carrier that had already closed for the day, the system would time out, and the process would have to be started over when both carriers were open. It took the carriers a little while to realize this is a 24/7 process. There was also a lack of training and, obviously, experience in dealing with this issue in the call centers and at stores.

What should businesses that want to take advantage of WLNP do? Egan: They should stay away until the end of the first quarter of this year. They should also be looking over their contracts and offers from other carriers to determine how to best exploit the new competition. In general, a company may be better off staying with its carrier and negotiating a better deal, but if that doesn't work, it can go somewhere else much more easily.

A lot of analysts predicted that the carriers would be offering great deals once WLNP went into effect. Has that happened?
Egan: We started seeing that even before Nov. 24. Carriers were giving away phones, cutting prices by 5% to 10% and giving longer night and weekend periods. Those are the visible incentives, but there were plenty of dirty tricks buried in there as well. For example, some carriers were giving out free camera phones, but consumers didn't realize that by accepting the new phones, they were also committing to another year or two-long contract. And I expect to see more of that. Most business contracts are up in March, so that will be a very interesting time.

What other advantages can enterprises look forward to?
Egan: Over the course of this year and next year, I think WLNP will lead to a more competitive environment, which will mean lower prices, more reliable customer care and better networks -- otherwise, users will just pick up and go elsewhere.

A lot of carriers are trying to get customers to sign multi-year contracts to help them keep their users. Is that a problem for businesses?
Egan: Some businesses actually prefer longer-term contracts. Rather than the length of time, however, businesses really need to start looking for service-level agreements. They need to begin looking for metrics, such as dropped or blocked calls and voice quality. Customers should have the ability to nullify a contract if carriers are not providing adequate levels of service. That is common in the wired business, and it should be in wireless, too.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Read why experts urge caution when changing wireless carriers.

Get an answer to complex wireless billing.


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