Net Phone Zone: The Problems With (Number) Portability

How long does it take to transfer a conventional land-line phone number to a Voice over IP phone? In the case of Herb, a reader from Lincoln, Nebraska, too long.

Herb (who asked that his last name be withheld) uses Lingo, an Internet phone service run by Primus Telecommunications. When he signed up with Lingo, he decided to transfer his landline number to the VoIP service. On its Web site, the company says that the porting process can take 15 to 20 business days (basically, up to a month). So Herb waited patiently for the transfer to occur.

After the first 30 days passed, Herb contacted Lingo to check on the status of his order, and was told the company had no record of the request. Herb submitted another request, and verified that Lingo had recorded it, but the company could not give Herb a porting date.

Four months later, Herb was still waiting. Despite various calls to Lingo's customer service, he wasn't getting anywhere. Nobody seemed to know where things were at--and nobody could tell him when the transfer date would be.

"I finally dug up the name of the president [of Primus] and gave him a call," Herb reports. "To his credit, the president got someone in the executive escalation team on the issue. It took another four weeks, but we got our number ported."

Primus also credited Herb's account for the three months' worth of service fees he'd been paying while waiting.

Herb finally succeeded in switching his local number over to his VoIP service--but five months is an awfully long time to wait. And he's not the only consumer to report this kind of negative experience: VoIP providers acknowledge that problems can crop up when people try to transfer legacy phone numbers to their Internet phone service. In fact, depending on your current phone service, you may not be able to transfer your number at all.

So if you're debating whether to keep your phone number when you switch to a VoIP service, here are a few things to think about before you make your decision. If you do opt to keep your number, I'll tell you what you can expect--and what you can do to avoid trouble along the way.

To Port or not to Port?

Whether you're getting VoIP service for your home or business, if you decide to dump your local phone company or your wireless provider, porting your old number can dispense with a lot of hassles. Chief among them is having to spread the word about your new number to family, friends, colleagues, clients, and so on.

Another reason to stick with the number you've got: Many businesses pick their numbers based on the letters they represent on the phone pad, so that customers can reach them by keying in the name of the business or a product, instead of having to memorize a phone number. Finally, you might simply have a sentimental attachment to your phone number. Maybe it has a nice ring to it (no pun intended), or it's super-easy to remember, or you've had the same dang number for 18 years.

Whatever the reason, giving up your phone number can be a real drag, so the decision to port is often a no-brainer.

Can My Number Be Transferred?

Of course, you may not be able to keep your existing number. Typically, when you first sign up for service on a VoIP provider's site, you're presented with two options: You can request a new number, or you can punch in your existing phone number (or perhaps just the area code and the prefix) to find out whether it can be ported. As providers expand their coverage--rapidly adding area codes to their lists--chances are pretty good that your number can be transferred. However, you may live in a remote area, or in a state where your provider doesn't offer service. For example, Vonage does not offer area codes for Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

If you're set on keeping your phone number and you don't want to switch to a VoIP provider until you know you can port it, make sure to sign up for e-mail notification services (if offered) from the providers that interest you. When a VoIP service begins offering numbers in your area code, the company will ping you with an alert, and you can submit your request to have your phone number ported.

Lingo's estimate of 15 to 20 business days for a port seems a tad aggressive; most VoIP companies will tell you that it will take about a month or six weeks before the porting is complete--assuming all goes well. BroadVoice, for example, expects the process to take about 30 business days, and SunRocket says it can take up to 60 days, although 30 days is more typical.

Why so long? Well, there's a complicated process going on behind the scenes, involving multiple parties and a distinct sequence of events, so it's anything but a piece of cake. A VoIP transfer involves more parties and paperwork than, say, porting a cell phone number from one wireless provider to another.

The Trouble With DSL

If you're setting up your VoIP service on DSL, a landline number transfer is tricky: You're required to keep an active phone line as part of your broadband package, so you can't transfer your landline number or you'll lose your Internet access. VoIP providers can port your number only if you're getting broadband service via a cable modem.

That said, if you're on DSL and want to port your landline number, you might be able to work around the situation in one of two ways. You could switch to cable Internet access if you can get it in your area, or you could order a second phone line to use for your DSL service if your local phone company permits it. That way, your Internet access will be associated with the new second phone line, and your old phone number will be available for porting. To minimize your costs, keep your phone service on the new line to the bare essentials.

Of course, either one of these DSL workarounds has potential headaches, including scheduling appointments for the phone gal and/or the cable guy (if self-installations aren't an option), canceling one service (DSL) and starting another (cable), and the hassles commonly associated with dealing with multiple parties. And who knows how long all that will take before you're able to submit your port request?

Before the Switch

Okay, so you've decided you want to transfer your number; you've determined that it's transferable; and you're good to go, as far as you can tell.

First things first: Inform the VoIP provider (typically via its Web site) that you want to keep your existing number. You must complete an authorization form allowing the VoIP service to take charge of your number. You send this form, known as a letter of authorization, to the VoIP provider, along with a copy of your most recent phone bill. Once you submit this paperwork, the wheels are set in motion.

However, you may run into problems if features such as distinctive rings or call forwarding are associated with your landline phone. So you should waste no time in advising your phone company to discontinue these features, stripping down your phone service, so to speak. Until you do that, the porting process cannot move along. (The VoIP companies' Web sites generally do a decent job of spelling out this information.)

While the porting process is in progress, your VoIP service will give you a temporary phone number, typically in the same area code as your existing number. Remember that while you're waiting for the port, you are still paying for both your VoIP service and your landline service--the latter must be alive and kicking for the port to happen. So the longer the porting process takes, the more you're eating into those cash savings you were hoping to get with a VoIP phone.

You'll typically hear about porting progress via e-mail from the VoIP provider. If the expected porting date has come and gone, don't waste any time: Contact your VoIP provider and ask what's up. The clock keeps ticking and you're still paying for two phone services; so if the delays seem unreasonable, ask your VoIP provider for credit to compensate for your added expense.

Whatever you do, don't cancel your landline service. You'll simply interrupt the porting process if you do--and the number you've been waiting for may slip away forever. Your VoIP provider will handle the transfer. If you've installed a second phone line in order to port the number on your first line, the same thing applies: Don't cancel either line while the transfer is underway.

The Porting Process

Once the VoIP provider gets your paperwork, it will do its best to verify your landline arrangement. It may contact you if it discovers inaccurate or missing information. Then it sends off your porting request to its local service partner in your area, which is generally a competitor to your landline phone company. This partner then contacts your phone company and passes along the porting request.

If your old landline company signs off on the transfer, then it's just a matter of a week or more before the porting is complete. But your landline service provider might reject your request, which puts things on hold. Possible reasons for rejection include failure to turn off one of the extra services mentioned above, or a pending service order--maybe you forgot that you'd ordered call forwarding. At this point, there are four parties involved: you, your VoIP company, its landline partner, and the landline company you're about to ditch. So expect some back and forth among them until all the lingering issues are cleared up.

Once your account has been sorted out, you'll usually hear about the actual transfer day through e-mail--and you'll get at least a week's notice. You don't have to do anything; the transfer should be seamless. You shouldn't lose your dial tone; you just pick up your phone handset to make calls on that designated day, and your landline number appears as the caller ID associated with your VoIP phone. Likewise, if people call you on your landline number, their calls will reach you via the Internet.

However, one big difference between your traditional phone and your VoIP phone involves 911 emergency service. For full details about the limitations, read "The 411 on 911." Also read "FCC Extends VoIP E911 Deadline" for the latest news.

Contact your VoIP provider regarding any remaining issues related to your temporary number. If you have any stored voice messages, for example, you may have a limited time to review them before they are deleted permanently.

Note that even if you were informed during the sign-up phase that your number could be ported, your VoIP service might later learn that the transfer can't be made. "Initially, everything can look fine on our system," says Joyce Dorris, chief marketing officer at SunRocket. "But, in a small number of cases, the porting process must be underway to get a handle on why a number may have porting issues."

Dorris cites as an example a problem that sometimes arises for phone numbers in outlying suburbs of major cities. If you live a good bit away from Washington D.C., for instance, your local phone company may give you a phone number with the D.C. area code 202, even though you live in an area served by area code 571 or 703. This mismatch can pose a problem for porting.

Finally, if you switch from one VoIP provider to another, whatever number you had with your first VoIP plan can be transferred to your new one--as long as your new VoIP provider supports your area code. In this scenario, fewer parties are involved (no landline companies) so porting should go more smoothly--in theory, anyway.

Aoife McEvoy has left PC World, so this will be the last of her Net Phone Zone columns.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter