FCC Changes System of Handing Out Phone Numbers

FRAMINGHAM (03/17/2000) - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today issued new rules that will eventually force carriers to make switching changes to slow the need for new area codes.

The long-awaited rules respond to a recent explosion in the number of new area codes: 24 in just the past 10 months. The new codes not only inconvenience corporate telecom managers and consumers but also threaten to completely exhaust the supply of available numbers later this decade.

The crux of the new rules is a gradual move to do away with the current system of handing out phone numbers, under which any local carrier -- whether long-established or brand-new -- must take numbers in batches of 10,000.

That's because under the current routing system, telephone switches only look at the area code and three-digit exchanges 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 is a new CLEC (competitive local exchange carrier) that has just begun marketing. The current system has remained essentially unchanged since the introduction of area codes in 1947, decades before the first CLEC appeared.

The new rules reduce the effective minimum number block to 1,000 by having up to 10 carriers "pool" their allocations in one 10,000-number sequence. A neutral national administrator in conjunction with local carriers will administer this system.

But the schedule may not be fast enough for some. First the FCC will pick a number-pooling administrator, 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 regional Bell operating company territories -- 21 in all -- will be required to implement number pooling.

There are 207 area codes in operation in the United States today, so the schedule will take at least two and a half years to roll out, not counting the new area codes coming online in that period. Even at that, certain carriers in non-metropolitan areas will be exempt. The exact order of the area codes moving to number pooling will be determined later.

Because each of the affected carriers will have to change their switch software when their area codes come up, the FCC also requested comment on how the carriers -- particularly the RBOCs (regional Bell operating companies) -- should recover these costs. The major local carriers have earlier warned that mandating such a system might result in yet another new line item on users' bills. FCC officials signaled that they would not be too happy with such an approach.

Yog Varma, deputy chief of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau, said a new line item should not be necessary because number-pooling switching changes should be less expensive than government-ordered changes carriers made over the past two years. Those changes enable users to keep their phone numbers when they change local carriers.

The five-member commission unanimously approved the rules. But the two Republican commissioners, Michael Powell and Harold Furchtgott-Roth, put the commission on notice that they may later favor rules that would force carriers to pay for the numbers they actually use. "I think we need to go further and make some bolder decisions," Furchtgott-Roth said.

Three states in severe area-code trouble -- New York, Illinois, and California -- have already ordered some number-pooling trials, and others are considering doing the same. The states will be allowed to proceed on a faster schedule than the FCC rules if they wish, and FCC officials admitted that they have dragged their feet on the issue. "The problem was getting ahead of us these past few years," FCC Chairman William Kennard said.

The FCC also passed new reporting and reclamation procedures to prevent number hoarding by carriers. But the agency rejected an option to authorize separate area codes for cell phones and pagers. The wireless industry has consistently opposed such proposals.

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