The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) voted unanimously at its October Open Meeting to initiate a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) and a notice of inquiry (“NOI”) on how to facilitate nationwide number portability (“NNP”), an issue it last addressed after the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (the “Act”). According to the Commission, allowing a consumer to keep their current phone number when changing providers, regardless of the size or type of service, will increase competition. Comments on the NPRM and NOI will be due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register and reply comments will be due 60 days after publication.

Under current FCC rules, telephone service customers, both individuals and businesses, may keep their telephone number when they change providers and stay in the same local location (“number portability”). In 1996, when adopting the initial number portability requirements, the FCC declined to require location portability—the ability of a consumer to retain their phone number despite their location. The Commission has since interpreted its authority under the Act to include encouragement of location portability efforts. However, for technical reasons, customers may not be able to port their phone number if they move outside of the geographic area of their telephone number. This can be the case for customers who seek intramodal (e.g., wireline-to-wireline, wireless-to-wireless) or intermodal (e.g., wireline-to-wireless) porting. While many consumers, particularly wireless consumers, believe that they can port a number to any provider when they move to a new location that is not a correct assumption. Such a port is only possible when the new wireless provider has a facilities-based operation in the local access and transport area (“LATA”) of the number being ported.

Presently, successful porting of a number is done through the use of a local routing number (“LRN”) which is a 10-digit number like a phone number that shares a routing switch with the customer’s new location. The FCC requires the carrier immediately before the one that terminates the call (i.e., the N-1 carrier) to be responsible for ensuring that the number portability database is queried to get the correct LRN before routing the call. The current FCC rules also require dialing parity which means an ILEC must provide non-affiliated providers with the ability to automatically route their customer’s long distance call to its destination without “unreasonable dialing delays.” The Commission explains that the dialing parity requirements are implicated in the routing of calls to ported numbers.

In this proceeding, the Commission seeks comments on a pathway to achieve NNP and “align [FCC] regulations with the trend toward all-distance voice services.” The NPRM seeks to implement NNP through an incremental approach that will achieve this result while minimizing prohibitive costs and allow time to resolve the technical concerns. To begin with, the Commission proposes to eliminate the N-1 query requirement. The FCC suggests next removing the remaining interexchange dialing parity requirements.

The NOI inquires into some issues related to the deployment of NNP including,

The NOI also seeks comment on the implications of the FCC’s NNP proposals on routing and interconnection, public safety, and disabilities access. The Commission further notes that deploying NNP could be facilitated by possible broader changes to the numbering administration system and thus, seeks input on ways that numbering administration could be improved, whether technically, administratively, or legally.

While this effort by the Commission is an important step towards trying to achieve NNP, there are a number of technical matters that need to be addressed and one shouldn’t expect to be able to port numbers nationwide any time soon. It appears the significance of “area codes” will continue for a while longer even if this proceeding may later be pointed to as the beginning of the end for these three digit numbers being equated with specific geographic locations.