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This Man's Got Your Number : Due to the high demand for phone numbers, new area codes are replacing beloved old ones. Ronald Conners assigns them.

April 19, 1998|GENE WEINGARTEN | THE WASHINGTON POST

Once upon a time, if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed the operator. Her name was Mildred. Your telephone was as heavy as a bowling ball. "I am on long distance," you said, and people hushed up, impressed. Your own phone number was something like TRemont 2-8795. Everyone remembers his first phone number, because it had a name and a personality. BUtterfield 8.

There was romance to the telephone then.

But in the late 1950s, Mildred lost her job. To call long distance, you merely had to dial a three-digit long-distance code. Suddenly DEcatur 2 became 332. The phone company never convincingly explained why. Pockets of protest formed; in San Francisco someone established the Anti-Digit Dialing League, to protest the dehumanizing change. But the league sputtered and fizzled, like a bad connection.

By the 1980s, technology had goose-stepped forward. No one was making songs like "PEnnsylvania 6-5000" anymore. When you called directory assistance, you spoke to a robot that demanded the information on its terms: city first, then name--and God forbid you should want an address.

This time, no grass-roots protest surfaced.

There was, at least, a constant: those area codes. Distant cities retained a sense of identity. Chicago was 312. San Francisco, 415. Los Angeles was 213. New York, 212. The numbers were familiar and somehow reassuring.

And then, about two years ago, things started changing again. There was an explosion of new area codes, and they did not resemble area codes you had ever seen. Worse, they replaced area codes that were familiar. Chicago was partitioned like Gaul; parts are now 773, other parts are 847, and still others 630. Atlanta was divided like Sherman only dreamed: Some neighborhoods remained 404, others became 770, others 678. Brooklyn, which was forever part of 212, became 718. Baltimore went from 301 to 410, and now, if your phone is new, you are 443. Your next-door neighbor can have a different area code from yours.

We have mislaid our sense of place.

Gone was the telltale 1 or 0 in the middle, a convention that reliably distinguished area code from phone number. Long-distance numbers have become a soup of digits, a minestrone without meaning. What kind of phone number is (678) 209-1894? It has become nearly impossible to remember a phone number.

Who did this to us?

I asked a directory assistance operator for "the phone company." There is no phone company, she said. Hasn't been since 1984, with the breakup of AT&T. When I asked her name she gave me her "headset number."

Eventually, I reached someone from AT&T who disclosed that the phone company no longer allocates the area codes. "That is being administered by a private concern," he said.

Your area codes are no longer being handed out by the phone company. Now they are being handed out by Lockheed Martin Inc., which makes warplanes.

The man in charge is Ronald Conners, director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration. He is an engineer who works for Lockheed.

To find him, I telephoned Lockheed, which is headquartered in Bethesda, Md., area code 301. The switchboard operator had never heard of Ronald Conners. She suggested I phone Lockheed's Telecommunications office in Golden, Colo., which is area code 303. The Golden office had no record of Conners but sent me to the company's Information Systems and Technologies office in King of Prussia, Pa., which is area code 610. King of Prussia suggested I try Lockheed's Communications office in Marlton, N.J., which is area code 609. At Marlton, I got a pager number for someone named Jim, at area code 888. Jim sent me to Lockheed's Information Management Services division in Teaneck, N.J., area code 201, where they knew Ronald Conners. They gave me his office number. It was in area code 202.

I phoned him.

"I'm across the street," he said cheerfully. "I can see the Washington Post from my window."

And so it was that I walked 70 feet across 15th Street Northwest to confront The Man With the Plan.

Not a Plot, but a Plan

The North American Numbering Plan is 50 years old this year. Its job is to distribute area codes nationwide. It is headquartered on the 12th floor of a nondescript building.

Ronald Conners, 57, looks soft and sincere--a little like Lyn Nofziger or Alfred Hitchcock. Many years ago, he worked for Bell Labs in Whippany, N.J., designing antiballistic missile systems. When he talks, he steeples his fingers professorially. He has been doing this phone number thing for 10 years or so.

Is the North American Numbering Plan part of a diabolical plot to sap Americans of their individuality and humanity?

"I would have to say no," he says mildly.

It is simply a matter of arithmetic, he explains. Technology has created a terrific demand for phone numbers to accommodate our faxes, cell phones, beepers and those dedicated modem lines for our computers. Each area code allows only 7,920,000 possible phone numbers. Once, there were only 87 area codes. In 1994, there were 144. Now there are 197.

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