cyberspacial musings
bits about the real and virtual worlds

09 Apr

Portable Cellular Numbers And What Happens Next

I’ve been waiting for cell phone number portability for a long time. I currently use AT&T as my carrier, but have been disappointed with their service, particularly in downtown Washington DC. Today’s Washington Post reports on the upcoming change that requires cell phone number portability between providers.

Put it on your calendars now — November 24 — the day the cell carriers are required to provide this service. Yes, they say it will cost everyone more money, but in the long run, this is really going to force them to compete. People like me who have stayed with their carrier for a long time will be able to try different carriers without losing their phone numbers. Those carriers who provide the best service will win.

This is not like the local and long distance service. The quality of service provided by the carriers is obvious — dropped calls, lack of cell towers, etc. People will start to move around to find the phones that work best where they work, which is a good thing.

But here’s another interesting tidbit. The same regulation will also force wired carriers to allow their numbers to move to wireless carriers. This means that if I moved out of state, I could transfer my home phone number to a cell phone and then retain that number when I move. I could essentially retain a persistent local calling number for those folks where I used to live. Or I could ease the transition to my new phone number by keeping a cell phone with the old one for six months or so.

I think there’s more to this, however. I predict that this will blur the distinction between local and long distance phone calls as well as area codes. After some transition period, I believe that all calls will become local, just as Verizon, MCI, and probably others offer unlimited long distance service now. If all service transitions to this, then all calls become local and area codes become unimportant. We’ll still have ten digit phone numbers, but they will no longer correspond to a particular geographical area.

How we retain phone numbers will be an interesting side effect of this. Area codes keep people focused on seven-digit strings of numbers, not 10. While everyone in the US has a social security number consisting of nine digits, few of us remember more than a couple of them. In contrast I have dozens of phone numbers stuck in my memory, likely because there is great commonality in the first three digits of those numbers.

I have to wonder whether the FCC really thought about this potential issue. I’m not sure they did, but either way, I think economically this will be a good thing for consumers. Of course, only if our memory holds out …

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