Google struggles with phone number 'for life'

Google's GrandCentral is having to change about 400 of its clients' phone numbers, despite its pledge to provide numbers "for life."

Google's GrandCentral Communications is finding it tricky to keep its promise to provide its clients with a single phone number "for life."

GrandCentral, which Google acquired last month, had to change about 400 of the supposedly perpetual numbers it had assigned to clients.

By doing so, the call-management company may be creating for these clients the main problem GrandCentral was founded to solve.

The numbers had to be changed after a "local carrier partner" recently notified Google it would stop its service and thus would be unable to connect calls to the GrandCentral numbers issued in its coverage area.

"We worked around the clock to transfer the majority of numbers affected by this to another partner, but this process didn't work for some -- about 400 numbers," a Google spokeswoman wrote via e-mail. She declined to name the carrier and the affected coverage area.

Google has contacted the affected customers and set up alternative numbers in the same area code. The old and new numbers will work until Aug. 30, 2007, after which only the new numbers will remain active.

"We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience and worry this has caused, and we want to reassure all of our users that we remain committed to providing 'one number for life' that they can count on. We are taking steps to avoid any similar issues in the future," the spokeswoman wrote.

Indeed, preventing this from happening again will be critical for GrandCentral, whose main appeal is its ability to let people tie multiple phone numbers to a single one.

The issue came to light in recent days in discussion forums and blogs after some affected GrandCentral clients reported receiving the Google notices.

Prior to Google's explanation late Monday afternoon of the problem's scope and what prompted the number changes, several unaffected GrandCentral clients expressed concern about the situation in e-mail interviews.

"Having to change my number would be very disruptive and a huge hassle. The possibility of this happening has become my biggest hesitation with fully embracing and using my GrandCentral number," wrote Ben Spinks, practice manager at Tipp City Veterinary Hospital in Ohio. "I have gone so far as to include it in my business e-mail signatures, but I am still nervous about getting my business cards reprinted."

GrandCentral bills itself as a provider of voice communications management services. It lets people integrate their phone numbers and voice mailboxes into one account, and manage their calls and voice messages online.

For example, customers can obtain a number from GrandCentral and set it up with their phones so that all, some or none of them ring, depending on who is calling. In addition, people can get a central voice mailbox.

This way, phone numbers can change, but people can avoid the hassle of notifying friends and associates about the change and reprinting business cards and letterheads.

All GrandCentral services are free. Google doesn't disclose the number of GrandCentral accounts.

Steve Crow, who works in retail telecommunications sales and is based in Mechanicsville, Virginia, has been using GrandCentral since September and noted how ironic it would be if his number stopped working.

"I would have to notify everyone I know that my 'one number for life' had changed," he wrote in an e-mail message.

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