Bells Play Hardball With Numbers

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Time Warner Inc. is accusing the Baby Bells of frustrating phone competition by refusing to transfer existing phone numbers when customers want to switch local phone carriers but retain high-speed data service.

Time Warner Cable is rolling out digital phone service in dozens of markets using voice-over-Internet protocol technology. The ability to retain an existing phone number is seen by some as an important consideration for consumers when they shop for a new provider.

In an Oct. 12 Federal Communications Commission filing, Time Warner did not refer to the Bells by name, but as ILECS, which is industry jargon for incumbent local-exchange carriers, including the regional Bell operating companies.

Time Warner said the problem is especially pronounced in situations where customers that already subscribe to an ILEC’s local phone service and digital-subscriber-line Internet access decide to sign up for a new local phone provider.

Time Warner told the FCC that the ILEC won’t transfer the phone number, as normally required under FCC number-portability rules, unless the consumer cancels both the phone and DSL service at the same time.

“We stated that, in our view, such [number-portability] refusals constitute a plain violation of applicable number-portability rules, which do not view internal policies as a permissible justification for a refusal to port,” Time Warner said it told FCC chairman Michael Powell’s top phone competition adviser.

Time Warner’s overarching point was that forcing a customer to drop DSL reduces interest in finding another local phone-service provider, especially one that has to assign the customer a new phone number. Phone number retention is considered especially important for small businesses.

The Georgia Public Service Commission is considering a rule that would require BellSouth Corp. to sell “naked DSL” in the state. Today, BellSouth won’t sell DSL unless the customer subscribes to local phone service.

“The overall policy is that we require you to have the voice service in order to have the DSL service,” said BellSouth spokesman Kevin Curtin.

BellSouth has asked the FCC to block the states from imposing rules that would require the unbundling of DSL and local phone service.

Time Warner and other cable companies offer voice, video and data services both as part of a bundle and as standalone products.

Many cable operators offer the bundles at a discount to the aggregate price of the individual products.

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