Changing cell phone companies? You can keep your number. Changing local phone companies? Same deal. Switching over to Internet phone service? Well ...
Over the last several years, consumers have become accustomed to retaining control of their phone numbers -- specifically, being able to transfer them when switching cellular or local landline services. But the situation is less clear for relatively new Voice-over-IP services. The Federal Communications Commission has yet to decide whether and how number portability -- be it to or from a landline service, a cell phone service, or another VoIP service -- and other telecom regulations should apply to VoIP.
Meanwhile, some of those consumers who venture into the brave new world of Internet phone service are discovering that even when no one challenges their right to hold on to a phone number that they've had for years, red tape can make implementing a transfer much more time-consuming than they expected.
Jerry Gerlach, technology director for the town of Biddeford, Maine, says that while he's happy with his Vonage VoIP service, he was frustrated that it took more than four months for Vonage to transfer his phone number of 13 years from his previous VoIP provider, Time Warner. (Time Warner took only a few hours to get the number from Gerlach's landline service in 2001.)
Gerlach says that he became "fairly aggressive" after two months, going so far as to track down a Vonage vice president's e-mail address and to file an online complaint with the FCC. He says a Vonage official finally told him the problem was the company's lack of a number-transfer agreement with Time Warner. (A Vonage spokesperson said the company doesn't comment on these agreements.)
Why are transfers so problematic? Stand-alone VoIP firms such as Vonage must partner with traditional landline carriers to give customers any phone number -- new or existing. To transfer an existing number, a VoIP company must also possess an interconnection agreement, which spells out how a transfer will be handled, with the phone company that has been servicing the number. Then the VoIP company's landline partner can arrange the transfer.
The customer is usually not even aware of these arrangements, but they can seriously prolong the transfer process.
Sound complicated? It is. "It's a complex industry," says AT&T CallVantage spokesperson Gary Morgenstern. Even AT&T, which can offer its VoIP customers phone numbers from its own huge pool, is limited in its ability to provide number portability. The company still lacks the interconnection agreements necessary to transfer cell phone numbers, Morgenstern says.
The good news is that if the agreements are already in place, transferring your phone number to VoIP service can be speedy and smooth. For instance, two other Vonage customers, Dan Bahr of Bellport, New York, and John Painter of Lewiston, Maine, both say that their transfers took less than the 20 days Vonage estimated for the process. However, both men transferred their phone numbers from Verizon, which has an agreement with Vonage.
If you're thinking of taking the Internet-phone plunge and you want to retain your current number, you can do a few things to help smooth the transition. For starters, contact your prospective VoIP service (see our September review, " Net Phones Grow Up ," for suggestions) and ask whether it has an agreement with your current phone company. If it doesn't, you might want to wait until it does -- or shop around for a different company that has an agreement.
Also, be very careful when filling out any forms: Even making a simple mistake like transposing two letters in the name of your street could stop the whole process and force you to start from scratch.
Copyright 2005 PC World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved
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