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The numbers game: Don't cell yourself short

Stories by GREG STILES

Scott Sinner hoped to save a few bucks worth of roaming charges when he made an adjustment to his cell-phone plan before his wife's trip to the Bay Area a few weeks ago.

Instead of paying the usual &

36;59, plus tax, per month to AT&T Wireless, he upgraded the 3-month-old shared plan by another &

36;20 ' or less than the &

36;30 worth of roaming charges he otherwise expected.

But the apparent cost-savings move backfired more than a little when Sinner received a bill for &

36;223 this week.

The minutes on the shared plan were not ringing up, Sinner says. Instead of 500 minutes on my phone, I had 27.

Sinner has been an AT&T customer for more than four years, but after an unfruitful half hour with a customer-service agent, he's ready to move on to another cellular service provider.

— That may not have been so easy in the past, but on Monday, Federal regulations take effect in rural America allowing disaffected cellular customers to switch providers ' and take their cell numbers with them. The changes mean land-line customers also can transfer those numbers to cell phones.

While this is old news in the nation's top-100 markets, where the rules went into effect Nov. 24., it brings places like the Rogue Valley up to speed with metropolitan markets.

A prime deterrent to switching companies in the past has been that customers had to leave phone numbers behind if they switched carriers. For businesses, that meant changes in stationery, business cards and advertising. For individual customers it meant giving family, friends and associates a new number.

While trying to sort out the pieces with an AT&T agent, Sinner was informed his wife wasn't eligible for the plan that he had been directed to at a retail store. AT&T spokesman Mike DiGioia says the company is working to resolve the matter.

Bottom line, the portability issue is very important to me right now, Sinner says. I doubt it will be difficult to find a new carrier; there's enough competition out there and someone will provide customer service.

For other Southern Oregon cellular users, coverage area is a continual irritant.

It's the dead spaces in T-Mobile's coverage that have Louise Horn counting the days until she can switch to another carrier.

Our two years will be up this summer, says Horn, who works at a medical office on Murphy Road and has been stuck in a lengthy contract with her cell-phone provider. Reception has been the biggest issue. We've got a lot of dead places in town and it's not great along I-5 or the coast. When we're by the hospital, we're OK. But if we drive out to Jacksonville, we lose the signal.

She says jumping to AT&T is a likely option. But if the major-market reaction to the number portability change is any gauge, Monday won't bring a torrent of switching customers.

There's been a little bit of pent-up demand, but not the wave of customer movement, DiGioia says. It hasn't come through the way some people predicted

He says the majority of his company's contracts come due in the fourth quarter, but geography might be just as important for customers.

The carrier with the longest history, quality of the network, customer usage patterns all come into play, DiGioia says.

There were plenty of satisfied customers contacted for this story and industry spokespeople are quick to point out that retention rates are remarkably high. But the regulatory changes will force companies to improve coverage area, pricing and customer service to maintain those statistics.

Competition is much keener in metropolitan markets, simply because there is more money to be made. In Medford, AT&T and U.S. Cellular are the primary carriers with the best bandwidths. T-Mobile, Sprint PCS and Nextel also serve the area, but haven't built as extensive systems.

There's really not as much competition here as in other markets, says John Brewer, a manager for Cellular Etc., in Medford's Blue Sky Plaza. We're kind of in a weird area as far as cell service goes AT&T and US Cellular are the only ones with service off main highways. A lot of the companies don't work well for people living in places like Sams Valley, Ruch or Jacksonville. A lot of the companies build along I-5 (as a regulatory requirement) in order to keep their licenses. They have to build in Medford to keep their licenses in Portland.

While customers will now be able to keep their numbers, calling plan and add-on options assure some degree of complexity to switching.

Gold River Distributing President Steve Lytle, for example, has a passion for the latest technological gadget that supersedes his brand loyalty.

His company has used Nextel for several years because its two-way messaging outweighed coverage issues. But until Nextel and Research In Motion combined to produce the BlackBerry wireless voice and data communications device, Lytle generally used another carrier to communicate while he was out and about.

I've always been outside chasing the latest thing and whatever the latest Palm/personal digital assistant combo I could get, Lytle says. And that meant changing my number.

He believes that number portability will give larger clients more clout in negotiating price. He says the wholesalers he's talked to around the country frequently weigh trade-offs when deciding what carrier to choose.

This hand-held has this tool, but doesn't have this and other guys have this but not that, Lytle says. It's a balancing act, because not everybody offers what we would like. AT&T is ubiquitous, but doesn't have two-way options.

He says contract length will now be the primary deterrent for customers to change providers.

I have an attorney friend that has had the same cell number for maybe 10 years, Lytle says. He's never changed ' good times and bad. ... But now that he can keep his number, he told me when the contract came up, he'd finally look at it on a business level.

Despite the hype surrounding the first round of phone-number portability changes in November, Jay Ellison, U.S. Cellular's executive vice president for operations, says no empires have crumbled.

Frankly, I didn't see volumes of change, the hype suggested we might have seen, Ellison says. There was some aggressive activity in the first few days, but nowhere near what was predicted.

Nonetheless, the Chicago-based company with a regional customer service center in Medford, poured &

36;50 million into upgrades so its staff and systems could handle both the technological changes and anticipated increase in customers. That's separate from the &

36;600 million the company has spent to expand its network.

U.S. Cellular's 1.3 percent churn rate (lost customers) in the first quarter was the lowest in the industry, versus an industry average of 2 to 2.5 percent. AT&T's first-quarter churn was 3.7 percent.

Ellis declines to reveal the company's market share in its Oregon/California cluster, but says We're net gainers.

Bruce Miller has been a U.S. Cellular customer since 1989 and ditched his land-line two years ago.

He's heard the pitches for changing providers, but isn't apt to jump ship.

I'm pretty loyal, Miller says. I'm the same way with hamburgers ' Dairy Queen is the only place I go ' and I only eat Bruno's pizzas.

I try to simplify my life. If I was always looking for a better deal, switching every two months to get some great deal, I don't know if I'd accomplish that.

Nonetheless, he admits he has a price.

If another company had a plan that matched my existing one and had some different bells and whistles, such as multiple phones for the family at no additional cost, maybe I'd be enticed.

You can switch plans and keep your same number beginning Monday, but do some legwork before you make any decision. Mail Tribune photo illustration/Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven