FCC Cracks Down on Phone Number Waste

FRAMINGHAM (04/17/2000) - Carriers who aren't really ready to serve customers in a particular geographic area will no longer be able to reserve blocks of telephone numbers, according to new government rules just released.

The Federal Communications Commission has ordered NeuStar, the little-known but influential administrator of the telephone numbering system throughout North America, to make carriers prove they have facilities or contracts in place before assigning them phone numbers.

Under the new rules, carriers must provide "documented proof" that they are ready to serve customers within 60 days of receiving numbers. Those documents could include equipment purchase orders, interconnection agreements with other carriers, or contracts with dominant local carriers for unbundled network elements such as switch ports and local loops.

The new rules are included as part of a 142-page text detailing the FCC's comprehensive plan for reforming the way area codes and phone numbers are distributed. The plan was adopted March 17 but the full details were not released until now.

The main part of the plan, as already reported, requires the telecom industry over the next few years to update switch software to correlate smaller blocks of telephone numbers with individual carriers. Right now phone numbers are always assigned in blocks of 10,000, and since some carriers have only scattered customers in various areas, the size of each number block is causing many numbers to go unused.

But in addition, the FCC now says, some competitive local exchange carriers are simply ordering number blocks as part of their business plans even where they are not ready to begin service. Part of the problem has been that current industry guidelines for handing out number blocks are voluntary and NeuStar can't enforce them, says Susan Baldwin, senior vice president with Economics and Technology, a Boston telecom consulting firm. Now, she says, the FCC-ordered documentation "gives NeuStar something they can use to require accountability."

Baldwin adds that wasted numbers are not always the competitive local exchange carriers (CLEC) fault. Occasionally CLECs have to pull back on their business plans because problems arise in the incumbent carrier's operations and support systems (OSS) that typically bond CLECs with incumbents to trade customer orders. "It's not necessarily malicious on the CLEC's part," Baldwin says.

"Sometimes they have their ducks all lined up in a row and then the incumbent's OSS code turns out to be really rotten."

Under the FCC rules, all carriers will also have to follow new guidelines to get new telephone numbers beyond their first block of 10,000 in a geographic area. They will have to submit worksheets showing what percentage of numbers in their current blocks they have already utilized in order to get more blocks.

The FCC said it would set a specific utilization threshold by Jan. 1, 2001 after seeking additional comment.

The FCC is taking these steps in order to slow down the pace at which business and residential customers have to deal with new area codes. The entire system of 10-digit area code and phone number combinations is projected to fail later this decade if no action is taken to stop number waste.

NeuStar is a Washington, D.C., organization designated by the FCC as the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA). NeuStar was spun out of Lockheed Martin - the previous NANPA - last November after Lockheed Martin was deemed to have made too many investments in telecom carriers who might need telephone numbers. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that the NANPA be a "neutral' organization. NeuStar maintains a storehouse of information about area codes and phone numbers, including area codes that are in jeopardy of running out of numbers, at www.nanpa.com.

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