Area Code Rules May Take Years To Provide Relief

WASHINGTON (03/24/2000) - If you've heard rumblings that certain area codes encompassing your network locations are about to change again, they probably will - despite recent federal action to slow the torrid pace of area code splits.

The Federal Communications Commission earlier this month issued new rules that will eventually force carriers to make changes in their central office switches to enable a more efficient system of handing out phone numbers.

But experts say the long-awaited rules are too tame to brake the creation of new area codes over the next two years, although they should prevent the complete exhaustion of U.S. telephone numbers predicted for later this decade.

The new rules address the current, outdated system of handing out phone numbers, under which any local carrier -long established or brand new - must take those numbers in groups of 10,000.

Ever since area codes were introduced in 1947, telephone switches have only looked at the area code and three-digit exchange to determine which terminating carrier gets the call. The remaining four digits represent a batch of 10,000 possible numbers that only one carrier can handle, even if it's a new competitive local carrier with few customers. The new rules reduce the minimum number block to 1,000 by having up to 10 carriers pool their allocations in one 10,000-number sequence.

Change will come slowly, however. First, the FCC will pick a neutral third party to administer number pooling nationally - a process that's expected to take at least nine months. Each quarter thereafter, carriers in three area codes in each of the seven original RBOC territories - 21 in all - will be required to implement number pooling.

There are 207 area codes in operation, so the schedule will take at least two and a half additional years to roll out, not counting the new area codes coming on line in that period. Even at that, certain carriers in nonmetropolitan areas will be exempt.

Some analysts who have been watching the issue since the pool of area codes was expanded in 1995 are exasperated by the slow timetable. "We've been talking about this for years," says Susan Baldwin, senior vice president at Economics and Technology, Inc., a consultancy in Boston. "Why is the schedule taking so long? This is so embarrassing."

State regulators have been taking the brunt of user complaints about area code splits, Baldwin says. Several states have already implemented number-pooling trials, and in the Chicago area, state regulators have successfully staved off an expected split of area code 847 by making number pooling standard there.

But the Telecommunications Act of 1996 assigns legal authority for phone numbering rules to the FCC, meaning states have to request "dele-gated authority" from the FCC to force a trial of number pooling or to demand that carriers give back unused numbers. "States have had to raise their hands at the FCC and say, 'Mother, may I?' or else the industry won't give it to them," says Baldwin.

Some 22 states have requested such authority, but the FCC has acted on only 10 requests. Ralph Sorrell, an analyst at the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, says his state has been waiting since last fall for the FCC delegation to take action to stop exhaustion of numbers in the 219 area code.

"Why are they dragging their feet? All they have to do is to say yea or nay," Sorrell says.

FCC Chairman William Kennard acknowledges that the problem is gnawing at users and state regulators. "The problem was getting ahead of us these past few years," he says.

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