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Why is WNP MIA?

In the days leading up to the introduction of wireless number portability, I remember reading dire predictions of mass defections from major carriers now that consumers have the ability to move their numbers from carrier to carrier. Thus far, the proposed avalanche of defections has been more like a flurry. Shouldn’t we have predicted that it would be much ado about nothing?

If you ask 10 people in any given metropolitan area, you might get some anecdotal agreement on which carrier is the worst in that particular region. However, I would be very surprised if you get broad agreement about the best carrier in a given metropolitan region. Do any of these comments ring a bell?

-“I get great reception at the office, but I can’t even use my mobile phone in my house/apartment/condo”
-“Customer service at [my provider] is awful and I can’t take it anymore”
-“My friend is on [insert name of carrier] and he claims that he gets excellent coverage”

When you combine the fact that perceived quality is a combination of a number of factors (choice of carrier, choice of handset, geographic location, etc.), it is no wonder that there is no clear consensus about the best carrier for any given geographic region.

Second, given this confusion around which carrier to choose, what incentives are there for customers to switch? I have not seen any major service providers offering competitive deals to attract switchers. If anyone has seen evidence of carriers offering to pay contract termination fees or offer other sweetners to entice new customers, please let me know. And, for those unlucky customers switching from CDMA to GSM or vice versa, you have to add on the cost of a new handset to any other expenses associated with porting your number. Finally, when you add in the roughly 5-day delay and well-publicized problems at AT&T, it is not surprising that customers have not flocked in droves.

Maybe the reason that the carriers finally relented and agreed to support WNP is that they knew that most customers wouldn’t take them up on it and they weren’t prepared to make what is already a very competitive industry even more competitive by trying to poach customers from each other any more than they already do. Or maybe they are all waiting for the dust to settle a bit before they roll out all kinds of special deals for switchers. If there were large numbers of low-hanging fruit customers, I would expect T-Mobile and Cingular to be vacuuming them up with aggressive deal and marketing.

There are other reasons at work as well. An apples to apples comparison between service provider plan offerings can be challenging, especially given that different providers choose different break points and combinations of anytime/nights & weekends minutes in their packages. Also, I don’t think that the wireless companies are ready to compete with each other in terms of quality of service and coverage except in print media. There are not good, objective measures of signal strength, coverage, etc — the best available to most consumers are the maps that are prominently displayed in retail phone shops.

At the end of the day, I feel like WNP might be much ado about nothing. Every day wireless telephony gets better, handsets improve, and the experience gets more enjoyable. Let’s see if WNP really turns out to be an important event for the industry.

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