Static in New Jersey
Over New Area Code

some customers were content,
some were indifferent,
and some were furious...

two area codes in one house...

The following article is an excellent presentation of the issues that arise when the telephone numbering system has to deal with an area code that is "used up" — the area served is demanding additional telephone numbers from a system that has no more numbers available.

How do you deal with that situation?

Static in South Jersey over new area code

By Brian Thevenot
Philadelphia Inquirer
December 9, 1997

With South Jersey running out of phone numbers, a nationwide problem in this age of number-guzzling devices such as computers and fax machines, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is preparing to carve up the 609 area code.

The board faces a decision that utilities officials typically couch in such terms as "least inconvenient" or "lesser of two evils." The evils on the table are the same as those last year in North Jersey's area-code crunch. The board can either pick a geographic split, which means drawing a north-south line through the 609 region and assigning a new code to the western half, or opt for an "overlay."

With the overlay option, only customers needing new numbers would get the new code. During BPU hearings over the last several months, the telephone industry, elected officials, businesses, and the public have sought to sway the board. Perhaps the only point of consensus was that there is no fair, convenient way to deal with area-code exhaustion. "When the board split 908 and 201 [in North Jersey], some customers were content, some were indifferent, and some were furious," said Tim Ireland, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, which supports an overlay.

The board chose a geographic split for 908 and 201 in North Jersey last year. On Saturday, the two new codes took effect: 732 takes part of 908 while 973 grabs part of 201. The BPU will make a decision on the 609 code in January, said spokesman Phil Leary. Industry officials say the geographic-split option has the edge.

The issue is not phone rates, which are based on distance rather than area codes. At stake are the inconvenience and what could become costly changes — and who will bear the brunt of them. If the board chooses a geographic split in South Jersey, residents with the new code — the western half — would have to deal with buying new bank checks and notifying friends and relatives.

For businesses, multiply that inconvenience by the expense of new stationery, business cards, advertisements, and lost sales from customer confusion. Alice Esposito, who owns South Jersey Reality Services in Winslow Township, doesn't support either option. A split would put her home and office in a new code. "The split would be good overall, but that's where it costs businesses," Esposito said. "The overlay would be less costly for business, but I have two phone lines, and if I want to add a third, that means I have to get two area codes in my house. "I think there should be a third option," she said, suggesting that perhaps area-code lines could be drawn along county lines. "They are just putting a Band-Aid on a major problem."

Winslow is one of eight communities that would be split by the proposed area-code line. Such a line would run from Willingboro to Dennis, dividing those towns along with Medford, Waterford, Monroe, Buena Vista and Maurice River. Most of those towns have passed resolutions opposing the option. Medford polled its residents on the issue. Out of 128 responses to a survey sent to 250 homes that would get a new area code, just four people favored a split. Township manager Alan Feit said, however, that there had not been overwhelming public interest in the issue. "I don't think people really think they can affect the BPU, so in my mind, they feel somewhat powerless in the whole deal," he said. "Every time [the BPU] has done this ... they have done whatever they wanted to do."

Medford officials posed their own solution: giving new three-digit exchanges to the 2,000 phone lines in southwest Medford targeted for a new code, and drawing the line around the town. "There are ways to do this. There are ways to minimize the inconvenience, that's what we're saying," Feit said. But Ireland, of Bell Atlantic, said split communities were inevitable. Three-digit exchanges correspond to network "switches," or relay points, buried in the ground. The switches have always been located near areas of heavy population rather than along town borders, Ireland said.

In an overlay, no one would have to change a phone number, and towns would not be split. But some argue that this option actually splits every town as new numbers are assigned. The primary complaint about the overlay option, though, is that it would require 10-digit dialing for all local calls. If the board chooses a geographic split, the new code could take effect in a year. An overlay would take nine months, BPU officials said.

For now, there is no magic third choice, industry and utilities officials say.

Technology to stretch the life of area codes is coming, but is not here yet, said Ken Branson, spokesman for Bellcore, the Morristown-based research firm that tracks phone-number exhaustion and assigns new area codes. "The only thing that is not an option is doing nothing," Branson said. "Area codes, in our view, are not cultural icons; they are not found anywhere in the Declaration of Independence. They are just buckets of numbers, and they are running out."

Before 1995, a "heavy year" meant four or five new area codes nationwide, Branson said. Since January of that year, however, there have been 90. The common explanation for number exhaustion — that computers, faxes and cell phones are eating up numbers — is only part of the story. More to the point is that communications advances are far outpacing an obsolete number-distribution system put into effect in 1951 to serve a telephone monopoly.

Since then, numbers have been given out in three-digit exchange codes, which correspond to blocks of 10,000 numbers that can be used in a restricted geographic area.

Now, local phone service competition is expected to accelerate number exhaustion. When a company moves into an area, it gets 10,000 numbers — even if the company needs only a few. The rest of the numbers are then wasted. "In order for MCI to compete in an area, we have to get 10,000 numbers," said Seth Maiman, an MCI government affairs manager. "Problem is, we may only get 14 customers in that area, and we're still sitting on the 10,000 numbers."

Some companies are studying "number pooling," which would allow a company to take smaller blocks of numbers, perhaps 1,000 or 2,000, but none has successfully implemented it.

Because the numbers are a commodity to phone companies, the BPU must also broker arguments over competition issues. The dominant local service suppliers — Bell Atlantic, Bell Atlantic Mobile and Comcast Cellular — argue for the overlay. Competitors such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint are pushing for a split.

With an overlay, the competitors worry they will have to sell not only service, but also a new area code — and that, they say, won't go over well with customers. Rich Blasi, spokesman for AT&T, posed a hypothetical situation: "Say I come up to your door ... and the Bell Atlantic guy is standing right next to me. I say I can give you 5 percent off your bill. The Bell Atlantic guy says, 'I'll give you everything he does, but I can give you the same area code.' Who are you going to go with?"

Ireland said Bell Atlantic's advantage in an overlay would be "zip, zero."

"Number portability," meaning that a customer can switch companies without switching phone numbers, would nix the advantage, he said. The FCC has mandated portability for part of South Jersey by March, and throughout the region by June 1999.

Industry officials predict the New Jersey BPU will opt for a geographic split in 609. They say it's the traditional, safe solution, and it was the choice last year for North Jersey. BPU officials said little had changed since then. "The only new arguments deal with number pooling and number portability," said Mike Gallagher, the BPU's telecommunications division director. "We're looking at whether the technologies will be ready for the 609 split. Based on the testimony we've seen so far, we don't think they will be."

[The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 December 1997]

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