Compliance Firms Seek Wireless Portability Solution

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Telemarketers say they face a compliance hurdle that can't be met beginning today as consumers now can keep the same telephone number when switching between wireless providers or from landlines to cell phones.


The problem is that there currently is no way to avoid calls to consumers who switch to wireless, unless those consumers sign up for the national no-call list. This leaves telemarketers unable to comply with the ban on calls to cell phones when using automated dialers and open to fines from the Federal Communications Commission.


On Friday, a trade group of local telephone carriers filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington to temporarily block landline-to-cell phone switches. The FCC has said it will defend the new rules against any court challenges.


Telemarketing compliance providers, who help telemarketers suppress calls to prohibited phone numbers, are working on the problem but have no solution yet.


NeuStar Inc., a third-party administrator of the nation's telecommunications network, has ignored requests to help telemarketers avoid calls to such consumers, according to a letter last week from the Direct Marketing Association.


NeuStar administrates the telephone numbering system in North America and has had responsibility for administering landline-to-landline number switches. Now, NeuStar also will administer wireless switches.


In the letter, addressed to the FCC, the DMA complained that it contacted NeuStar for data needed to determine when a landline number has been switched to a cell phone. According to the DMA, NeuStar failed to respond.


"To date, NeuStar -- which will be the sole, centralized source of such data -- has ignored our repeated requests, effectively refusing to cooperate," the DMA said in the letter, dated Nov. 17 and sent last week by the DMA to DM News.


In response to the DMA's letter, NeuStar spokesman Bill Stern said his company was working with the FCC to solve the problem expeditiously.


"The FCC is very focused on this, as are we," he said.


The DMA sent the letter to the FCC to ask the agency to suspend enforcement actions against violations of the cell-phone telemarketing ban that arise because of wireless local number portability. An FCC spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the letter but has no plans to cease enforcement in any way.


In its new telemarketing rules published this summer, the FCC said the telemarketing industry would be expected to find ways to comply with cell-phone regulations after wireless local number portability took effect. The agency maintains that the means to comply with the cell-phone telemarketing ban are available, FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball said.


"There are databases out there," she said.


FCC sources have told the DMA that as many as 6 million people could make the landline-to-wireless switch in the first week, though the Thanksgiving holiday may mitigate that, DMA spokesman Louis Mastria said.


The FCC has no estimate of how many people will take advantage of the landline-to-wireless switch, but the shift may be gradual because many consumers are locked into long-term contracts with their wireless providers and may not want to pay termination fees, Kimball said.


The DMA offers a wireless-suppression service known as the Wireless Block Identifier File. But the file blocks only phone numbers in area codes, exchanges and number blocks that have been set aside for cell phones, not landline numbers that have been "ported" to cell phones.


"We're flying in the dark here," Mastria said. "We need some help in determining who we're calling."


Companies that provide no-call compliance to the telemarketing industry also disputed the FCC's claim that information needed for compliance was available immediately.


"There is no trusted source at this point that can provide the data," said Scott Frey, president/CEO of PossibleNow, Duluth, GA. "We are working on identifying a source."


Keith Fotta, president/CEO of Gryphon Networks, Norwood, MA, said that he was unaware of compliance solutions immediately available to telemarketers but that his company will make one available to clients as soon as it is developed.


NeuStar and VeriSign, another third-party telephone network administrator that has access to a database of local number portability switches, are part of a task force that is working to develop a database of cell phone switches, but it isn't immediately available, Fotta said.


Call Compliance Inc., Glen Cove, NY, is a partner of VeriSign, said Dean Garfinkle, Call Compliance chairman. The two companies are working on a solution that will block calls to all wireless numbers, including those switched from landlines, as part of its TeleBlock call blocking service.


Garfinkle declined to disclose details of how the system would work but said it would be available to TeleBlock customers in January for an additional fee. The database of wireless numbers will not be available separately, he said.


Local number portability came on the scene in the mid-1990s, when Congress introduced competition into the local landline telephone service market. A barrier to accomplishing that goal was allowing consumers to keep the same phone numbers when switching carriers.


The initiative to allow landline number-to-cell phone switches, known as wireless local number portability, is aimed at increasing competition in the telecom industry.


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