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Wireless number portability to begin by Nov. 24

By Ed Brock

Changing wireless phone providers is about to become much easier for people like Zach Wheat of Stockbridge.

"Every time (you change numbers) you have to e-mail people or call them. It's just a hassle," Wheat said.

Starting Nov. 24 the Federal Communications Commission will require wireless phone providers like Verizon, Sprint PCS and Atlanta-based Cingular to allow wireless customers to keep the same number they had with their previous provider. The process is called porting.

"It will be nice because you can give someone your number and you can stick with it," said Wheat, a Sprint customer.

The idea struck a positive note with Macon resident and Verizon customer JoAnn Marshall.

"I have changed only one time but it's something to think about when you go to get your new phone," Marshall said.

Wireless companies have known about the provision since 1997, when it was first adopted, and have been given several extensions since it was first supposed to be implemented in 1999, said John Muleta, chief of FCC's wireless bureau. The Nov. 24 deadline was the latest extension.

As late as September, some companies were asking the FCC to step in and resolve problems they were having making the necessary agreements to get the service started.

"It is clear that a number of the wireless companies are taking a position of slowing down the process of getting an agreement in place, so our purpose is to open up a dialogue," Muleta said at the time. "We expect full compliance."

The problems were not expected to delay the beginning of local number portability.

"No one has gone and done it exactly the same way," Cingular spokesman Clay Owen said in September. "But we are all talking to each other. All the carriers are testing with each other. Everyone wants this to work."

Inter-carrier testing, or the companies' testing of each other's systems, was the biggest challenge, Verizon spokeswoman Cheryl Sellaway said this week, but Verizon has been ready for the change.

Unlike many other wireless companies, Verizon has not been fighting the onset of portability and is not yet charging extra fees like some companies. That may change when the company reviews their costs after Nov. 24, but Sellaway said the fee would only be 10 or 15 cents a month.

"We believe as a wireless carrier that this is one of the things we need to do to make wireless service more convenient for customers," Sellaway said.

The FCC is requiring companies to be able to complete the number transition within 2? hours, Sellaway said. Customers shouldn't have to wait in the store during that time.

Sellaway said they are aiming at "friction-free porting," making the process "easy, fast and inexpensive."

Wireless companies say they have spent years preparing for the provision, spending millions of dollars revamping their networks, training staff and getting call centers ready. Cellular companies will be allowed to charge fees to allow customers to take their numbers with them.

The provision is required to be available in the 100 largest metro areas on Nov. 24 of this year. Some carriers may offer it in smaller markets before late May 2004.

When switching carriers you will be able to take your number within the same metro area but you may not be able to take it from one metro area to another.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.