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Wireless Firms Scrambling for Phone Numbers

May 31, 2000|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Sprint Corp.'s PCS Group and AT&T Wireless Group are having trouble gaining access to all the phone numbers they need to meet surging demand for new cellular service, the companies said.

The heart of the problem is the outdated way phone carriers get numbers, but the wireless companies themselves made the problem worse by postponing use of technology that could have helped them through number crunches.

Today's allocation system gives out phone numbers in minimum blocks of 10,000--a practice that routinely leaves thousands of phone numbers idle but unusable by other phone companies.

Rapid growth in the number of pagers, wireless phones and Internet access lines--all of which need phone numbers--has nearly crippled the nation's numbering system. Nowadays, though, if regulators merely rely on their old remedy of adding area codes (and thus new numbers), they risk a revolt from fed-up customers.

Wireless companies are particularly affected by the shortages because they're adding more customers than traditional phone operators and haven't had enough time to stockpile numbers, said Brian Fontes, senior vice president for policy and administration for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn.

Sprint PCS added almost 300,000 customers per month on average last quarter. The company said it has faced shortages in California and other states.

AT&T Wireless, the Redmond, Wash.-based unit of AT&T Corp., said it faces number shortages, though it didn't specify where.

The problem would be partially solved if the wireless companies could participate in a new number-sharing system that allows phone companies to share blocks of 10,000 phone numbers among themselves. Instead, lobbyists fought hard for--and won--a delay in implementing the number-sharing technology.

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Bloomberg News and Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass contributed to this report.

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