October 20, 2003
Cell phone consumers are in the cat bird's seat as Nov. 24 approaches. Though most consumers are unaware of the date's significance, you can bet it's circled in red on every cell phone executive's calendar.

That's the day on which federal regulations require what's known in the trade as "number portability." That means you can switch cell phone carriers and take your number with you.

Since fear of losing their number is the main reason consumers cite for staying with companies they're unhappy with, number portability is a very big deal indeed for cell phone carriers eager to hang onto their customers and poach more of their competitors'.

All of the major companies have started quiet campaigns to get customers to renew their contracts for longer terms. They're handing out free phones, additional minutes, cash credits and other goodies to nail down existing customers before the dread date arrives.

For example:

  • AT&T Wireless is giving away $50 credits to some customers who sign up for an extra year of service. Bigger customers are getting airline miles as well.
  • Cingular is giving free phones and big discounts on color phones to customers who sign up for two more years.
  • Sprint PCS is also giving away less expensive phones and giving big discounts on more expensive models to customers who extend their contracts.

But for crafty consumers, this is no time to be in a rush. Even better days are in store. Once Nov. 24 passes and consumer awareness grows, it will be officially open season. Customers with good payment records who use a respectable number of minutes per month will be frantically courted by both their existing vendors and those who covet them.

Verizon Wireless, the largest wireless carrier, has developed several strategies to improve its retention of customers. One is to provide continuing subscribers with a new phone every two years.

The stakes are huge. Studies indicate that nearly 9 million customers are likely to switch immediately after number portability becomes available.

Over the next few years, the new power number portability puts in consumers' hands is likely to depopulate the cell phone landscape. There are six major national providers now -- AT&T, Verizon, Cingular, T-Mobile, Nextel and Sprint PCS. It's likely that a few years from now, that number will be down to four or fewer as some companies adapt better than others.