Statistically it's likely that sometime in the next four to five years, you will switch VoIP providers. Consumer-research firm Telephia found that over 12 percent of VoIP subscribers will change providers in a given year, for reasons ranging from network quality to customer service to price.
But unlike with landline or cellphone service, a change in VoIP providers could mean having to change your phone number as well.
Ideally, the VoIP world would mirror the landline world, where the law now lets you keep a phone number even if you switch providers a dozen times. But VoIP, like most frontier areas, doesn't yet have a strong sheriff like the FCC to protect consumers. Until Congress or the FCC act, here's a brief guide to whether and how you can take your phone number with you.
While the FCC considers your landline or cellphone number to essentially be your property, once you move from a regulated telecom company to the unregulated realm of VoIP providers—"enhanced service providers" in FCC-speak—no such protection applies. Legally, you now have a data service, not a phone line, despite the remarkably phone-like sounds coming out of your PC or IP-enabled mobile.
Your landline or cell number remains yours if you port it to a VoIP provider—but if you start out with a number issued to you by a VoIP provider, it is generally that provider's property. This situation is driven by the fact that VoIP providers generally lease "your" number (or in a business's case, your block of numbers) from a telecom provider. Numbers are assets that providers pay to maintain, and they are unlikely to part with them without compensation.
The good news is that some VoIP companies offer services that let you take your number along if you leave. You (or your business) pay either a one-time or monthly fee that's charged for as long as you maintain the number with that VoIP provider. In other words, cover the telecom provider's cost for the number and they'll let you walk with it.
The next best thing is that some providers let you keep your old digits as a permanent "virtual number" that forwards to your new number. This service also costs, however; for example, Nuvio charges $4.99/month for this service, automatically forwarding calls directed to the old (and now virtual) number to your new number.
Even if you take all the right steps, VoIP number portability can still be a challenge. As Tom Keating summarized at VoIP & Gadgets Blog, cable/carrier portability to VoIP, and from VoIP provider to VoIP provider, is pretty good, but he had enough difficulty trying to switch from Vonage to Charter in September 2006 to write, "Number portability is a pain in the ass! "
Keating's colleague Rich Tehrani faced similar frustrations in 2004, trying to port his Vonage number to AT&T and getting inadequate customer service—despite being publisher and editor of Internet Telephony magazine and having the ear of Vonage public-relations staff and technical experts.
Both bloggers repeated a common complaint about switching providers: They had to maintain both their old and new phone service as the companies involved completed the switch, sometimes for months. This delay can eat into the savings expected from switching to VoIP from PSTN service, or from one VoIP provider to another.
For businesses, planning ahead is key. Contact prospective VoIP providers ahead of time and ask whether they provider number portability, not just for a single number, but for whichever block of numbers you want for your business. It might also be a good idea to ask to contact satisfied customers and better yet, haunt some of the companies' blogs and bulletin boards asking for customer success stories as well as horror stories.
Also, it may pay to simply wait until the VoIP regulatory landscape changes in favor of personal and business consumers. After all, it only took a few years of mass cellphone use—and the rampant phone-company switching that accompanied it—before regulations were introduced to protect users' phone-number portability. Cries for portability in the VoIP world are getting more frequent and loud, and at some point the federal sheriffs will saddle up and bring the law to town.
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