It looks like phone number portability won't be happening anytime soon! 01/21/2002 - Updated 02:11 AM ET FCC expected to put hold on cell phone numbers By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY In a move that critics say will hamper competition, federal regulators are expected to delay for up to two years a requirement that cell phone companies let customers keep their phone numbers when they switch carriers. The Federal Communications Commission, however, is likely to reject a request from big mobile phone companies to do away with the mandate altogether, say people familiar with the matter. A vote is expected within weeks. The FCC approved the requirement in 1996 in a bid to foster competition. A similar rule requires regional Bells to let customers keep their home or business phone number when they choose a rival local phone company. But the big wireless carriers fought it, arguing the software changes needed to ensure proper call routing are too complex. They convinced the FCC to grant delays that have pushed the original June 1999 compliance deadline to November 2002. Now, Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Sprint PCS argue the mandate should be scrapped because the market is competitive. "There's no evidence that customers are locked into service providers," says Mike Altschul of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. He notes that 30% to 40% of customers switch providers each year. Thus, he says, the rule is not worth the technical costs, which Sprint estimates at $1.4 billion over four years for the big firms. "That's going to be passed to customers," Altschul says. AT&T, Cingular and Sprint want the FCC to approve another delay of at least two to three years. They say the software changes would be especially onerous to make while they're making other changes to comply with an FCC order aimed at conserving a dwindling supply of area codes. But Consumers Union director Gene Kimmelman says, "It's outrageous for consumers to have to wait any longer to be able to take their telephone number to the cell phone company that offers them the best deal." He says the big carriers are exaggerating the costs "to hold on to their customers." In fact, Leap Wireless, a small carrier seeking customers from the big players, says the changes are "minor" and supports keeping the November deadline. "They're afraid of the competitive impact on their business," says Leap's Dan Pegg. He says many customers don't switch carriers because of hassles such as having to get new business cards. The FCC is mulling delays of six months to two years. Pegg calls even six months "extraordinarily long." Kimmelman says a two-year delay would virtually scrap the rule. Leap would especially benefit from the portability rule, which also would let customers transfer their home phone numbers to mobile phones. That could stoke a trend for many people to ditch their home phones and use wireless exclusively. Leap targets them with a plan offering unlimited local calls for a flat $29.95 a month.