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FCC Dials Wrong Number on Area Codes

Telephones: The commission supposedly exists to protect the public interest but instead caters to the industry.

May 18, 1999|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

How is it that the telephone area code has become an endangered species? Until recently, it was assumed that area codes--like postal ZIP codes--were a reassuring constant of life. You could plunk your area code down on a piece of stationery and it would stay put, something to rely on. Your kid could memorize seven digits and know how to call home.

But in the past five years the venerable area code has become a pitiful shadow of its old reliable self--split, overlaid and finally scorned as a relic of a simpler time, soon to be replaced throughout the country with mandatory 11-digit dialing. Thanks to overlay, which will soon be the norm, there can be two or more area codes in a single area and even in the same home.

The cost to consumers for everything from retrofitting gate alarm systems to new signage is estimated at $40 million every time an area code is changed. And the splits in overlays are accelerating. "This is spinning out of control," said California Public Utilities Commission attorney Helen Mickiewicz. "We have a crisis."

The phone companies claim this crisis is the result of a shortage of numbers due to the widespread use of beepers, cell phones and faxes. Sounds plausible, but it is the big lie. Even in California, where wireless communication is most popular, the state's PUC estimates that of 180 million existing possible phone numbers, only 37 million are currently in use.

There is no shortage of phone numbers, only a shortage of rational planning. The telecommunications firms screwed up big time, and the Federal Communications Commission let them get away with it. Industry representatives were permitted by the FCC to apportion the numbers to themselves at meetings closed to the public and the media. As Mickiewicz put it: "Phone numbers are a public resource. But the public is not at the table . . . and the FCC doesn't seem to care."

At those industry meetings, the phone companies assigned themselves numbers in inefficient blocks of 10,000, to be hoarded for future use whether needed or not. And hoard they did, to the point where they then turned around and said, hey, there's a shortage, so let's split area codes, and when that is no longer feasible just overlay one upon the other.

The FCC does not even permit local state utility commissions to require the phone companies to report on whether the numbers are being used, let alone to return unused numbers for redistribution. Nor does the FCC allow states to issue a unique area code to beepers and cell phones to alleviate any future shortage that might occur. That was the solution used by New York to preserve the 212 area code for Manhattan, until the FCC forbade it as being "unfair" to new technology firms.

No wonder the public utilities commissions of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and California have appealed to the FCC to grant them the power, as California PUC Commissioner Henry M. Duque put it, for "resolving the area code madness."

"It is now public knowledge that [phone] numbers are being allocated inefficiently," the California PUC stated in a recent filing with the FCC, "with every carrier receiving a block of 10,000 numbers, regardless of how many customers the carrier has or projects it will have in the foreseeable future."

The phone companies claim that numbers cannot be distributed in blocks smaller than 10,000 because their switching equipment would be unable to track them for billing purposes. That's not true.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the phone companies to institute "number portability" before they overlay existing area codes. What number portability means, in effect, is that you own your own phone number and have the right to change carriers without losing your number.

In order to accomplish this, the phone companies are required to build systems that can track individual numbers for billing purposes. Every phone customer in America is being charged 50 cents a month on each of their phones to cover the phone company cost in making number portability available.

With number portability there is no technical justification for inefficiently distributing phone numbers in huge blocks and hence no real shortage and no good reason to further split or overlay area codes. But this travesty will not be stopped unless the FCC permits the state utility commissions to reclaim unused phone numbers for redistribution.

Congress needs to investigate just why the FCC allowed this mess to occur and what the options are in dealing with its consequence now. Phone numbers are the key to the information and entertainment superhighway, and it is understandable that the telecommunications giants want to hoard those numbers for future profits. But the FCC exists to serve the public interest, an obligation that the commission has betrayed by catering to phone company greed.

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