Can You Hear Me Now? (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

The telephone, invented 127 years ago, ought to be perfected by now, don't you think? Yet the telecommunications industry is not mature, not settled, not even predictable.

Last week, we published an article by Assistant Editor Carl Holcombe about an impending tidal wave that is about to hit the wireless segment of the telecom industry. Starting Nov. 24 in larger metropolitan areas (including the Little Rock MSA) and covering the nation by May, wireless phone numbers will be "portable." That means you'll be able to change cell phone carriers but keep the same number.

We're so accustomed to the way things have always been that a major change like this almost seems surreal. It reminds me of the day in 1983 when I saw, for the first time, a TV commercial for Sprint. I was fascinated because it had never occurred to me that it might even be possible for AT&T to have a competitor in the long-distance business.

That you probably weren't aware of the new wireless portability rule is a testament to the industry's reluctance to publicize the change. They don't really want want you thinking about how easy and convenient it will be to change carriers as soon as your contract runs out. If you aren't happy with the service or a competitor offers you terms that better suit your use patterns, you can jump ship without worrying about re-educating your family and clients or reprinting your business cards. And your old carrier will have to spend money to sign up someone new to take your place.

Think back: Has your wireless carrier recently offered you a sweeter deal than ever before to entice you into signing a new or extended contract? Mine did, and I took it. I realized I was part of a push to lock up existing customers so that we couldn't leave en masse on Nov. 24 — but it was still a good deal. If something better comes along, I'll be free to take my phone number to some other carrier next summer.

Another change in the local telecom market happened last week, when AT&T announced that it will offer local phone service as well as long-distance in Arkansas. AT&T will be competing mainly with the state's largest "incumbent" local carrier, SBC.

What goes around comes around, or so I've heard. From divestiture of the "Baby Bells" in 1984 until late 2001, SBC was prevented from selling long-distance services in Arkansas. During SBC's first full year in the long-distance market, AT&T's in-state revenue declined by nearly 15 percent.

We'll be watching to see if AT&T is similarly able to wound SBC on local calls. Companies like Sage and MCI (through its "The Neighborhood" service bundle) are also encroaching on the local market. It's a good time for the good folks at SBC to be reading "Who Moved My Cheese?"

Head-to-head competition on service and price — the whole point of wireless number portability and new entries into the local and long-distance markets — has forced the venerable telecom industry to keep evolving. And we consumers are the winners.

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Maybe Verizon won't slap me with a Fox News-type lawsuit over the headline on this column.

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If you are the first person to open this copy of Arkansas Business, it's your lucky day. In addition to the new University of Arkansas at Little Rock magazine, our annual Book of Lists is inserted with the paper this week.

I'm not just the Book of Lists' editor, I'm its biggest fan and most devoted user. As soon as the new edition came back from the printer, I snatched up a copy, wrote my name on it in big, bright green letters and put it beside my desk phone book. I pity the fool who tries to take it from me.

I have no idea how those people who haven't discovered the Book of Lists manage to get through the day. Where else do you get contact names, fax numbers, Web sites — even e-mail addresses? Those things aren't in the phone book.

The Book of Lists alone is worth the price of your annual Arkansas Business subscription. (It's a gold mine of sales prospects, if nothing else.) So pull it out right now, put your name on it and make sure you have a safe place to keep it.

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. E-mail her at gmoritz@abpg.com.)