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Complex calling plans jeopardize phone numbers

Network World Fusion
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(IDG) -- A small band of large users is asking the Federal Communications Commission to take a broad, new step to slow the proliferation of new area codes and prevent the nation's phone numbers from running out.

In a formal petition last month, the Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee asked the FCC to force local carriers throughout the country to dramatically simplify the way they draw local calling areas. The effect of this proposal -- known as "rate center consolidation" -- would be to reduce the need for competitive local exchange carriers (CLEC) to request huge blocks of phone numbers that never get assigned to end users.

Echoing recent studies, the Ad Hoc Committee's petition warns that without rate center consolidation, the creation of new area codes -- 133 new ones have emerged in the past six years -- will result in all the nation's phone numbers being assigned to carriers before the end of the decade.

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The need for such action arises from long-standing regional Bell operating company practices. RBOCs are authorized to carry voice and data transmissions within extended metropolitan areas and intrastate regions known as local access and transport areas (LATA). But within each LATA, most RBOCs map out dozens or hundreds of overlapping "local calling areas" that represent free or nominal-cost calls for residential users.

The geographic center of each local calling area is defined by a particular central office location and is called a "rate center." Every incumbent or CLEC that wants to serve a local calling area must obtain at least one block of 10,000 phone numbers.

The problem is that many CLECs don't have nearly enough customers in each local calling area to use up those blocks, resulting in a huge waste of phone numbers.

The Ad Hoc Committee, representing about 20 large corporate users, such as Procter & Gamble and American Express, claims that rate centers are a holdover from the days when the distance of each phone call mattered. Now that even cross-continental calls are flat-rated, the committee says, the Bells should make each LATA or area code one local calling area.

But the Bells have resisted because they gain substantial per-minute revenue from calls that fall outside each rate center's free calling area but within LATA boundaries -- so-called "intraLATA toll calls." The committee estimates such intraLATA toll revenue at a maximum $2.7 billion per year, and says that running out of phone numbers would cost much more. In that case, users and the industry would have to spend $50 billion to $150 billion to expand phone numbers to 11 or 12 digits.

It would be "just as difficult for businesses to deal with as the Year 2000 problem," says Ad Hoc's Washington attorney James Blaszak. "Every database that companies maintain in which there are telephone numbers would have to change."

Blaszak told Network World that his committee members would accept a compromise as long as the FCC forces some sort of action.

The best scenario for users would be if regulators eliminate multiple rate centers, he says, "but there can be a glide path toward aggressive rate center consolidation. They might reduce the first 200 [rate centers in an area code] to 100, then 100 to 50, then 50 to 25."

The FCC last year took preliminary action to stop area code multiplication by ordering carriers to install switch software enabling phone number blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000.

But "thousands-block pooling is most effective when implemented in a brand-new area code in which numbers have not yet been assigned," says the Ad Hoc petition. "Mature area codes have few available thousands-blocks that have not already been contaminated by numbers assigned to a single carrier."

The FCC is expected to take up the rate center issue this spring or summer.



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