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Numbers game

Consumers can keep their number when changing cellphone carriers

March 9, 2007

When most Canadians wake up on March 14, they'll be able to do something that at least some of them have been longing for: give their cellphone service provider the boot — without changing their phone numbers.

Related

Your View: Switching cellphone services

On that day, major wireless telecommunications carriers across the country will flip the switch on wireless number portability (WNP), which will allow cellphone users to do something that has been possible with traditional land lines for years.

What's more, number portability will extend across the wired-wireless divide. It will be possible to move a cellphone number to a fixed-line phone, or vice versa.

Until now, the requirement that cellphone users change their phone numbers when switching carriers has been a major barrier to competition, according to business and marketing expert Ken Wong.

"Consumers have been locked into two- to three-year contracts and the reason they get into those contracts is usually because they want a new or free phone," said Wong, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

He said he doesn't expect wireless number portability will lead to droves of people paying a penalty to break their contracts in order to switch: "The fact I'm suddenly portable doesn't mean I'll tear up my contract," he said.

However, Wong does think that those who are intensely dissatisfied with their service will take that step.

Huge task done in record time: industry

About 70 per cent of an estimated 18.5 million cellphone users in Canada will be able to switch their numbers on March 14, according to a spokesman for the cellphone carriers' industry group.

"This is probably the most complex effort ever undertaken by the wireless industry in Canada," said Marc Choma of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA).

Choma said Canada will be the second country in the world to introduce number portability across both wireless and wired services.

The first was the United States — but it took them more than seven years to do it, Choma noted: "We've done ours in 18 months."

He said the industry had decided to introduce number portability and the federal regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandated that it must occur in 2007.

Skeptics say industry resisted change

However, Craig Dobson, an Alberta-based telecommunications industry consultant, was skeptical.

"If they can get that perception out there, it's good for them because they want to be seen as the good guys," said Dobson, who works for Taylor Warwick Consulting Ltd. in Sherwood Park, just east of Edmonton.

"It's not in their interest to make it happen," he told CBC News Online.

Dobson said that from a business perspective, it's more beneficial to the companies to "build walls" around their services and keep customers using their services — whether it's wireless or a land line.

Wong agreed, citing recent moves by some major carriers as an indication of the impact of wireless number portability on consumers.

"That's why you're starting to see Bell-to-Bell and Rogers-to-Rogers calling packages," Wong said.

Tips for those considering a switch

Wong also noted that switching between carriers may not be easy, depending on a person's current provider.

The Rogers network operates on the GSM wireless standard and Bell and Telus operate on a different standard known as CDMA. That means that people who, for example, might want to switch to or from Rogers or its Fido brand would have to buy new handsets.

Choma offered another tip for people who want to switch their service providers: only active or "live" numbers can be switched so people shouldn't cancel their service before making a change.

"They should contact their prospective new provider and ask how to transfer their number," Choma said.

He also noted that people will not be able to switch if they live in areas where there is no local phone provider or only one carrier provides service. In those regions, there isn't any competition to transfer to, he explained.

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