FCC looks to avert new phone number crises
(IDG) -- The country is in danger of running out of phone numbers again. And this time the telephone companies' old excuse - the growth of cellular phones, pagers and fax machines - won't cut it.
Alarmed at the rapid multiplication of new area codes, the Federal Communications Commission this spring will issue a proposal to force local carriers to start changing the entire system by which telephone numbers are assigned, Network World has learned.
The move is aimed at preventing users from having to change phone numbers both within data devices and for voice telephony because their area code changes every few years.
Both FCC officials and outside experts say the reason why carriers keep carving up new area codes - 47 scheduled across the country in 1999 alone - is not that there's too much demand for phone numbers but that the system itself is woefully inefficient.
Every time a competitive local exchange carrier enters a market, they explain, it can only request numbers in blocks of 10,000, even if it has only a handful of customers. That's because current telco switching systems only examine the first six dialed digits - the area code and exchange - to determine which local carrier will terminate the call. As a result, all 10,000 possible numbers in an exchange must be assigned solely to the dominant carrier or one of potentially dozens of competitors.
The problem is especially acute in California, where 20 out of 24 area codes have been placed in "jeopardy" status by the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA), including several that have gone into effect over the past three years. Numbers are being assigned to carriers by lottery in 17 of those area codes, the California Public Utilities Commission revealed last week.
To relieve the problem, California has 16 new area codes slated for introduction over the next three years. "California is splitting area codes like rabbits have babies," says Lee Selwyn, president of Economics and Technology, a Boston-based consulting firm that does work for several user groups.
But NANPA says that solution is a Band-Aid. When the nation began implementing non-traditional area codes in 1995 - those without a "0" or "1" in the middle - NANPA estimated that the new area codes could hold out until 2025. Now NANPA estimates the country could run out of area codes as early as 2007 if carriers continue to assign new area codes at the current pace.
"We're very concerned about the rapid exhaust of area codes," says Anna Gomez, chief of the Network Services Division of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau. In a February ruling on wireless matters, the agency warned of a "numbering exhaust crisis" owing to "inefficiencies in the current system."
State regulators are concerned, too, but they partly blame the FCC for the problem. Last week the California PUC issued a Consumer Advisory saying that it would like to implement a new system called number pooling to solve the problem. In number pooling, up to 10 carriers could share 10,000 number blocks, with each getting 1,000 of the numbers.
But the state regulators noted that the FCC so far has prohibited state regulators from forcing local carriers to participate in trials of number pooling. And, said the PUC, "Pacific Bell and GTE California are not willing to volunteer." A Pacific Bell spokeswoman told Network World a trial would be "costly and premature" since the FCC is about to make a new numbering proposal. GTE officials did not respond by deadline. By contrast, Bell Atlantic does have a number pooling trial under way in two New York area codes and so does Ameritech in one Illinois area code.
Making the problem worse: Many telcos force competitors to get not one but multiple 10,000 blocks to obtain full coverage of an area code. That's because they break down area codes into small zones called "rate centers" so they can measure the precise mileage of a call. For example, Selwyn notes, Eastern Massachusetts, with four area codes, has 203 rate centers. "So if a CLEC wants to do business throughout the Eastern Massachusetts LATA, it needs 203 [exchanges]. That's more than 2 million phone numbers," Selwyn explains.
In such a situation, the vast majority of numbers inevitably go to waste. Selwyn says he knows of CLECs who use only 10 numbers in some of their 10,000 number blocks. Besides, rate centers would be unnecessary if local carriers would agree to stop charging according to distance, just as most long-distance carriers now charge the same for all calls within the U.S. "There's no difference in cost [to the phone company] between a call of two miles and a call of 200 miles," Selwyn says.
Meanwhile, user advocates and some industry experts are steaming at the practice of phone companies continuing to tell users that increased user demand is to blame for splitting area codes. "That's not really true," says the FCC's Gomez. "New technologies are a factor, but it's really the introduction of competition as a whole that's leading to these exhaust issues." Agrees a spokeswoman for NANPA: "The driving force is that numbers are assigned in blocks of 10,000." Selwyn says the issue needs more attention from top RBOC management before it gets fully resolved.
1 number, 1 phone
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