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Cellphone number portability era begins

Tired of having a cellphone service that doesn't work in his Allston apartment living room, Matthew Glauber is among millions of Americans who have been counting the days leading up to this morning's debut of a federal policy letting him switch wireless carriers without having to get a new phone number.

Glauber, a 22-year-old financial services worker, plans to dump his Sprint PCS service this week and join two of his roommates using Verizon Wireless. "I've been waiting so I can keep the number I've had since 2000," said Glauber, who says he will not miss having to go out to the porch -- or into the bathroom -- to bring in a finicky wireless signal.

Finally liberated from the hassle of having to alert family, friends, and business associates they have a new cellphone number, millions of wireless consumers across the country are expected to switch carriers, starting this morning. It could be one of the more turbulent trends to sweep the US telecommunications industry in years. And because the policy also requires carriers to let someone move a home or office landline number to wireless service, it could also accelerate the social revolution of Americans using a cellphone as their sole phone -- something about 6 million to 8 million, many of them college students and mobile young adults, already do.

Industry analysts estimate that 10 million to 20 million of the 151 million US wireless subscribers are poised to defect in coming months. Just as Federal Communications Commission officials hoped, wireless service providers in recent days have been falling all over each other rolling out new services and price promotions to keep existing customers and position themselves to attract subscribers looking to move.

While predicting that consumers will benefit from intensified competition from wireless carriers, industry specialists and wireless company executives caution that in the short term consumers should expect some problems as carriers adapt to offering what the FCC calls "wireless number portability." Switching a landline number to wireless service could take up to four days, carriers warn. Consumers changing carriers will almost invariably have to buy a new phone because different providers use incompatible network standards.

The FCC mandate initially applies only to the 100 largest US metropolitan areas, as defined by the Census Bureau, which in New England include Greater Boston up to southern New Hampshire and the metro areas around Hartford, New Haven, Springfield, and Providence. Number portability will be available in the rest of the country May 24.

"Today marks a critical consumer victory for cellphone customers who should now expect more for less," said Consumers Union president Jim Guest. "But anyone immediately changing cellular companies or cutting the cord should anticipate that their switch may take a little longer, as the industry copes with the volume of customers trying to move carriers."

FCC chairman Michael K. Powell said that despite months of preparations by wireless companies who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading, he expects to see "hiccups" this week.

Still, AT&T chief executive David W. Dorman predicted "a profound impact on the wireless companies. It makes it easier for customers to switch with less hassle, and people will change wireless companies more readily."

Wireless companies have raced to market with new services in anticipation of the move. Last week, Sprint PCS launched a walkie-talkie service called Ready Link to compete with industry leader Nextel Communications and Verizon Wireless. AT&T Wireless unveiled a new wireless data network it says is the fastest of its kind, providing Net access at speeds two to four times faster than a conventional modem through a small card that fits in a laptop computer. T-Mobile rolled out a new "three-day weekend" plan with unlimited free calling on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

"Wireless carriers are preparing for the worst," said analyst Eddie Hold, a vice president with Current Analysis, an industry research firm. Verizon Wireless, by far the nation's biggest carrier with 36 million subscribers, is generally predicted to be the big winner, with its reputation for more reliable coverage attracting potentially millions of new customers. Nextel is also seen as a possible gainer among business customers who like its "DirectConnect" walkie-talkie service.

The nuisance of getting a new phone number has dammed a flood of switching by disgruntled customers. For them, the floodgates open today.

Jennifer Oliveira, 25, of South Boston, is looking forward to taking advantage of a very low price on a new flip phone from AT&T Wireless, but has resisted dumping her T-Mobile service -- her only phone -- because it's the number she has given to prospective employers. "It would just be so hard if I had to let everyone know," Oliveira said.

Roland Houle of Ashland has faced the same problem times four, with his wife and two children all now on AT&T Wireless after switching from Sprint PCS two years ago and informing family, friends, schools, day-care providers, co-workers, and many others of their new numbers. Unhappy with AT&T "coverage holes," Houle said his family is now looking to move to Verizon Wireless, and is delighted they won't have to endure the number ordeal again.

"We will have the best of all worlds," Houle said. "We no longer feel that we are stuck with a carrier. It's definitely a big win for consumers, and hopefully it will force better service from the carriers in order to remain competitive."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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