“Verizon (and AT&T), we’ve got a problem.”


We could have titled this one several ways: “Every Port a Storm?” Or maybe “A Plea for Good Portmanship.” I think we got it right. Apollo 13, the movie that seared the phrase “Houston, we’ve got a problem” into global consciousness, is a masterful mixture of tension and teamwork with rooms full of NASA scientists and engineers, and Jim Lovell and crew in the spacecraft, finding various technological needles in haystacks in a brave effort to get the astronauts back to Earth.

I’m pretty sure the cast of characters it took to port our older daughter’s mobile phone number from AT&T to Verizon over the holidays resembled the NASA team portrayed in Apollo 13. I know for certain the level of tension in our household and several retail locations rivaled that of the movie. And as hard as our daughter worked to tie the warring factions together and make it all happen over the 26-hour ordeal, I’m expecting a union card and her first paycheck to emanate from Communications Workers of America Local 101 any day now.

Some of the stars of this saga are those at Verizon who sold me the phone and said to “Have your daughter come in and we’ll take care of the port in about a half-hour,” then upon her arrival at the store tried to shoo her away with a notepad full of phone numbers and instructions…until she reported having already jumped through those same hoops only to be repeatedly bounced from the system. There were Verizon people who distinguished themselves in a positive way, such as the young woman at the store who reportedly “Called her boyfriend who works at an AT&T store, and called in favors” to get this done. There is one who shall live in infamy in our household evermore for yelling at our daughter when in desperation she called for help. First place in that hall of shame goes to the AT&T person who threatened, “If you do not give me the correct password right this second this port is not going to happen.” (Ever? Sometime during the Obama administration?) In our industry, as in all industries, there are still people whose neural synapses do not make the connection between the customer and their paychecks. Restoring a bit of our faith in humanity was the young man at Verizon who, at Hour 26 of Emergency Service Only On AT&T And No Service At All Yet On Verizon, walked my daughter through a lengthy phone sequence that seemed more worthy of top-secret clearance to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) than porting a number from one carrier to another.

Call me naïve in the ways of the wild world, but I don’t think this is what any of us had in mind as “the state of the art” in our business more than a decade after the Telecommunications Act (U.S., 1996). I fondly remember talking to publications such as Telephony and (now-defunct) tele.com back then about our OSS research and hearing, I am certain, prairie wind and tumbleweeds on the other end of the line. Then I would hit them with, “Don’t think of it as OSS; think of OSS as the reason why you can now switch phone carriers and take your phone number with you,” at which point their ears would perk up and OSS would finally get some well-deserved ink.

Yes, that was about porting numbers in the wireline environment and today we’re talking about porting numbers from one wireless operator to another, but should it really take “a cast of thousands” and a full-court press by the customer–who, btw, is paying for the privilege–to pull this off at the dawn of 2009? If so, I say it is a slap in the face to countless vendors, service provider engineers, systems integrators, industry bodies such as the TM Forum and regulators such as the FCC, and to the billions of dollars, euros, yen and other currencies that have been expended to “automate” carrier-to-carrier processes across every world region since ’96.

If anyone thinks all of this customer/retail/customer service manual interaction is a good and reasonable outcome, I think readers would love to learn why. I know I would. After hearing so much talk in our business about “zero-touch” service provisioning and activation, then experiencing this port between two of our nation’s largest wireless service providers, all I can think of is Dennis Miller’s memorable quip about his take on photos of Publisher’s Clearinghouse winners: “And you thought there were a lot of zeroes in the PRIZE.”

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