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Home-Cell Switch Deadline Nears With Few Answers

In less than a month, consumers will be able to switch their residential telephone numbers to their cell phones, and telemarketers are scrambling to figure out how to differentiate between the two.

Telemarketing calls to cell phones are illegal when made by automated dialing devices, and under the Federal Communications Commission's new definition released this summer these devices include predictive dialers.

The FCC's wireless local number portability program takes effect Nov. 24, allowing consumers to keep the same phone number when they switch cell phone providers or even when they switch from a residential landline to a cell phone.

The program seeks to encourage competition by making it easier for consumers to switch providers. But for telemarketers, who previously could rely on blocking calls to certain batches of numbers reserved for cell phones, wireless portability will make it tougher to comply.

In its report outlining changes to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act rules, the FCC acknowledged wireless number portability would pose a problem for telemarketers. But the agency said that the industry had five years to prepare since the portability plan was first proposed.

“We also note that there are various solutions that will enable telemarketers to identify wireless numbers in a pooling and number portability environment,” the FCC said in the order. “We decline to mandate a specific solution, but rather rely on the telemarketing industry to select solutions that best fit telemarketers' needs.”

The FCC essentially has told the industry to figure out the problem on its own, said Joe Sanscrainte, general counsel with Call Compliance Inc., Glen Cove, NY, and a DM News contributor. Though implementation of the portability program has been delayed several times in past years, another postponement is unlikely.

“What I've been telling people is, once local number portability comes into play, each telemarketer must figure out a way to remove cell phones,” Sanscrainte said. “Presumably there are private companies out there maneuvering to offer such a service.”

The Direct Marketing Association offers a wireless-suppression list to telemarketers. The service, the Wireless Block Identifier, suppresses calls to blocks of telephone numbers assigned to wireless providers.

In addition, many consumers have registered their cell phone numbers to the national no-call list, and any residential landline numbers already registered to the list will remain so if consumers switch them to cell phones.

However, once wireless local number portability takes effect, no existing suppression list will be capable of tracking consumers who switch landline numbers to cell phones, unless they report it voluntarily, said Helen Mac Murray, head of the national regulatory practice unit at Kegler, Brown, Hill & Ritter, Columbus, OH.

She compared federal regulators' approach on this matter to that of California lawmakers on e-mail. California recently enacted a law banning commercial e-mail to state residents unless they have given permission.

“They just patently don't care,” Mac Murray said. “Their solution is, don't e-mail and don't call — which kind of cuts into the business model.”

In its order, the FCC said that telemarketers already have solutions to help them avoid calls to cell phones and cited the DMA wireless suppression list. It also said that cell phone number information is available from other services. For example, private companies NeuStar and Telcordia operate the backbone systems of the national network of telephone numbers and could provide information.

However, the companies having the best information about cell phone numbers are the wireless companies, Mac Murray said. Those companies could profit from sharing cell phone information with telemarketers for suppression purposes.

Even so, privacy issues exist, she said. Wireless providers would have to seek permission from customers to share their cell phone numbers with telemarketers for suppression and ensure that such suppression lists are not used for the wrong purposes.

“There's going to have to be a collaborative effort of the marketing agencies with the wireless providers,” she said. “Otherwise, the liability is going to be huge.”

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