Marketplace Has a Way of Makinig 'Impossible' Possible

"Among the most expert subverters of technological progress are U.S. carmakers, which have thrown tantrums about virtually every safety or efficiency advance in transportation science."

Published: 02-Jan-2004

For the last few weeks I've been wondering whether I've been deeply unfair to the nation's phone and wireless companies. You see, I've been assuming that the only reason we couldn't keep our old cellphone numbers when switching to new carriers was that the companies had obstructed the practice over fears that it would encourage customers to seek out better deals from competitors.

Then I learned, partly from watching T-Mobile's Catherine Zeta-Jones haranguing on television, that the companies have been in favor of portable phone numbers all along. Not only that, the whole thing was their idea! Verizon's website reminded me that thanks to LNP, or "local number portability," I'd never have to commit a new number to memory, or call all my friends to notify them of a change, or print up new business cards. As Sprint's website put it: "Imagine the benefits!"

Imagine my surprise, instead, when my curiosity about who had been blocking this obvious consumer boon led me to some old news reports. There I discovered that it was the telecommunications industry, after all. While consumer groups and the Federal Communications Commission kept trying to push this policy along, the industry kept raising objections. It claimed that the change was technically impossible, then technically difficult, then technically expensive to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps the cleverest argument came from California's own Pacific Telesis, which informed the FCC that the appeal of number portability had been "overrated." Customers were more concerned with getting discounts than keeping their numbers, according to Pac Tel, though it didn't explain why it couldn't offer both.

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