Mixed Signals

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2003-10-01 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Cingular and its rivals have until Nov. 24 to get set to handle each others' phone numbers when a customer switches carriers.

Thaddeus Arroyo, Chief Information Officer for wireless carrier Cingular, is preparing for what could be a six-week sprint to meet a regulatory mandate.

Wireless local number portability, known as WLNP, will allow customers of the 100 largest carriers to take their phone numbers with them if they choose to switch their allegiance. The deadline: Nov. 24. The catch? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which established wireless number portability, hasn't finalized rules for how it should work.

That means Arroyo and his counterparts at other wireless firms will not know how to alter their systems until sometime this month. They will have to complete changes to those systems by the end of next month.

"It makes our life very difficult," says Arroyo. "We're in a last-minute scramble at the moment."

The FCC's two top issues are determining the boundaries for areas where numbers can be swapped and deciding whether wireline numbers will be interchangeable with wireless ones. The FCC mandate is just the latest Arroyo and other technology executives are facing. Whether it's wireless number portability or Sarbanes-Oxley, government mandates can turn into implementation headaches.

However, the FCC isn't the only hang up. Most wireless carriers have yet to forge interconnection agreements with rivals or wireline carriers for porting numbers. Wireless players have been preparing internal applications for number portability, but haven't ironed out industry agreements to exchange identifiers like names and addresses beyond a phone number.

The big task for Arroyo and other executives is to try to generate a benefit from something that has to be done. Arroyo doesn't have a return-on-investment figure for compliance, but hopes there are some undetermined "secondary benefits" such as creating a more flexible network and setting the stage to meet future mandates.

At this juncture, though, Arroyo is more worried about offering customers—both incoming and outgoing—the mandated option, without slipup. Depending on the number of applications at a carrier, it's possible hundreds of systems will have to be retrofitted.

Many wireless carrier systems, inherited from established telecommunications providers or cobbled together through acquisitions, were not set up to communicate with other carriers or import non-formatted data. Even if wireless carriers all agree to swap customer information electronically, the process could be held up by something as simple as an abbreviation for a street, says Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

Meanwhile, number portability may increase churn—subscribers who hop between providers—and spark a marketing war to keep current customers and attract new ones. Sprint says it is spending "hundreds of millions of dollars" to comply with regulations, including portability. AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless did not return calls.

For Arroyo, there is a bright side. He only has to retrofit fewer than 300 applications to prepare for portability, down from 1,400 when the company was created in 2000 as a joint venture between SBC Communications and BellSouth.

That's the good news. The bad? Arroyo has to revamp Cingular's billing and customer service systems, involved in almost every Cingular transaction, to accept number portability requests.

Other tasks such as synching enterprise planning software that may be affected takes a back seat. Arroyo declined to comment on specifics about his plan and the labor resources needed to meet the Nov. 24 deadline.

Cingular handles customer service with an in-house application and external billing with software from Amdocs of Chesterfield, Mo., a software company affiliated with SBC. Those two systems are the survivors of a consolidation round that eliminated 11 different customer service and billing applications. Meanwhile, the company is planning to migrate to Amdocs' Clarify customer relationship software.

Managing the Numbers

Arroyo wouldn't reveal what the company is spending on its billing systems, but regulatory filings offer a hint. For the six months ending June 30, Cingular had expenses of $31 million for development and support services with Amdocs.

Cingular's current systems were set up to handle blocks of numbers handed down from a pool shared with other carriers. That has meant that Cingular would get a set of numbers in a particular area code, such as 617, and the following three numbers, say 823, would be its and its alone to use.

Now, though, all numbers will go into a "virtual number pool" where numbers won't be associated with a specific carrier. To manage the numbers being swapped between wireless carriers, Cingular relies on Telcordia, a Morristown, N.J.-based software provider. Telcordia, which serves the bulk of wireless carriers, also manages the telephone number pool for wireline suppliers.

For Arroyo, much of his preparation revolves around delineating rules, some of which haven't been set in stone by the FCC or wireless carriers. Although applications have been set up in theory to accept billing information from other carriers, wireless companies—with the exception of Verizon Wireless and Verizon Communications—haven't worked out the standards and intercarrier agreements to exchange identifiers beyond phone numbers, says Roger Entner, an analyst at the Yankee Group.

The initial technical aspects—setting up fields in databases and billing systems to accept out-of-network wireless numbers—have been largely handled, says Entner. But the rush will come when the FCC rules and carriers ink intercarrier agreements, which may not all agree on how to define items such as street abbreviations and other billing information.

Cingular is also working to integrate number portability into its Web-based point-of-sale software—a problem considering carriers haven't agreed on rules to swap information such as names and addresses. Ideally, Cingular could just plug into another carrier's database to pull billing information and assign a portable number. But until rivals allow access to their billing data, many transfers after Nov. 24 may have to rely on paper and facsimile documents.

Currently, a typical sale requires a customer order, a credit check, verification with other carriers, number assignment and activation. With portability, Cingular's systems have to determine the customer's standing with his current carrier, account for what numbers can be moved and estimate a time when they'll be available.

Arroyo also has to alter network relationships such as when a call is considered a roaming charge to account for numbers coming and leaving its customer databases.

Chris McMahan is chief information officer for Wireless Retail, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that sells wireless phones in retail kiosks and collects a bounty from carriers. He expects to see order processing hiccups after the FCC deadline. As a result, many orders are likely to be handled manually, reducing his company's sales volume.

McMahan usually freezes implementations on Nov. 1, so all systems are "go" for the holiday shopping season. So he doesn't relish retooling his point of sale software up to Thanksgiving.

"This may cause a problem on the processing side," says McMahan. "I haven't seen a definitive [point-of-sale wireless portability] spec from any carrier."



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Business Editor
ldignan@ziffdavisenterprise.com
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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