By Wojtek Dabrowski
TORONTO, March 13 (Reuters) - Richard Branson, the billionaire chairman of the Virgin group of companies, escaped an exploding cage suspended above a downtown square on Tuesday to mark the beginning of wireless number portability for Canada's 18.5 million mobile phone subscribers.
"In the past, the major mobile phone companies just didn't have to worry about what price they charged or what service they offered because they knew they had you locked in," Branson, known for using similar stunts to mark other milestones of various subsidiaries in his Virgin empire, told reporters. "Now, they no longer have you locked in."
Branson's group operates Virgin Mobile Canada, which currently has 400,000 subscribers and competes with the three dominant Canadian wireless carriers, Rogers Communications Inc. (RCIb.TO), Telus Corp. (T.TO) and Bell Canada (BCE.TO).
Wireless number portability, or the option of switching cellphone service providers and keeping one's existing number, comes into effect for most of the country on Wednesday. Virgin hopes it will help it reach its goal of 1 million Canadian customers sooner.
However, many postpaid wireless subscribers -- those who pay monthly bills, as opposed to prepaid customers -- are locked into multiyear contracts. It could take as long as three years for some to be able to leave their current service provider without breaking the contract and triggering penalty payments.
While Bell, Telus and Rogers have kept relatively silent regarding number portability, Virgin plans to keep up its campaign with marketing and various perks and promotions for those who choose to switch.
A Telus spokesman called number portability "an opportunity," adding it should help the company grow its share of the business market in central Canada. A call to Rogers was not immediately returned.
While a Bell spokesman referred comment requests to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. There, a spokesman said "it's really sort of wide open as to what can be expected" in terms of the number of customers who switch, as well as their timing.
According to the CWTA, Canada had 18.5 million wireless customers at the end of 2006, making for a penetration rate of 58 percent.
"It's quite surprising how few people have mobile phones in Canada," Branson said during his news conference.
Virgin, which launched in 2005, wants to have 600,000 Canadian customers by the end of the year.
Virgin Group has operations that span a multitude of industries, from airlines and gambling to media and financial services.
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