Telephony / April 6, 1998
By Larry Luxner
Lockheed Martin -- a company better known for fighter jets than phone numbers -- will administer area codes for the United States, Canada and 19 Caribbean islands under a transition plan approved by the FCC last year.
Overseeing the project is Ron Conners, a likeable software engineer who's been fascinated with numbers all his life.
Conners, 57, is director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA) at Lockheed Martin IMS. Prior to joining the defense giant last September, he had the exact same responsibilities at Bellcore Laboratories, which had been the NANPA administrator ever since AT&T's breakup in 1984.
"After divestiture, things became very contentious," Conners told Telephony during an interview at his office, about four blocks from FCC headquarters. "Bellcore was the closest thing there was to a neutral entity. The FCC wanted the numbering plan to be in the hands of a company that had no interest in the outcome of telecom decisions, somebody who wasn't in the business. We're mainly in aircraft and defense. That qualifies us as a neutral third party."
Bellcore originally wanted out of NANPA because its shared ownership by the seven regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) had always been perceived as a conflict of interest. But by the time the FCC made the decision to find another administrator, Bellcore was already under new ownership (SAIC had purchased it a few months earlier) and conflict-of-interest was no longer an issue. To remain as numbering plan administrator, however, it would now have to compete against three other companies also interested in the lucrative job: Lockheed, Mitretek and CCMI.
To help it decide, the FCC looked to the North American Numbering Council (NANC), a 32-member federal advisory body established by the commission in October 1996 to represent all industry sectors including consumers and state regulators.
"One of the first jobs NANC was given by FCC was to recommend a successor to Bellcore. We put that out to bid, then recommended that the new NANPA be Lockheed Martin," said NANC's chairman, Alan C. Hasselwander, a retired CEO of Frontier Corp.
Asked why the council chose a defense contractor, Hasselwander said "our criteria looked at both price and capability. Two vendors were very close: Mitretek and Lockheed. Both of them were considered to be capable, but Lockheed's price was significantly lower than Mitretek's."
Conners said Lockheed's contract with the FCC is worth $25 million over a five-year period. Lockheed Martin IMS -- headquartered in Teaneck, N.J. -- already provides a host of non-defense-related data-processing services to state and local governments, including child support services, parking ticket processing and electronic toll collection.
One of 50-odd operating divisions within the parent firm, Lockheed Martin IMS is a leading provider of sole-source, third-party services to the telecom industry. Through the nation's first-of-its-kind Number Portability Administration Center in Chicago, the company will provide various phone companies throughout the United States with local number portability, which allows customers to keep their existing telephone numbers if they switch to a new service provider. For five years, Lockheed also administered the 800-number toll-free database for the telecom industry.
In addition to area codes, Lockheed has also taken over the administration of several lesser-known numbering resources from Bellcore. These include the personal communications services or 500-NXX codes; 900-NXX codes; the international inbound 456 codes; N11 codes (911, 411, etc.); 800-855-XXXX line numbers for the hearing-impaired; carrier identification codes (CICs), and vertical service codes and automatic number identification information integers.
In January, Lockheed company moved NANPA operations to Washington, and on Feb. 20, it completed a three-month transition which consolidated the transfer of all NANPA responsibilities from Bellcore to Lockheed Martin IMS.
"It's a unique marketplace for us," says Conners, who moved from Bellcore to Lockheed in anticipation of the defense contractor winning the NANPA contract. At Bellcore, he said, "we really didn't set policy. The basic decisions by a state or city are really local decisions. They'd submit a relief plan to us. If that was consistent with industry guidelines and FCC directives, then we would make that area-code assignment.
"The role Lockheed has is considerably more complicated than Bellcore originally had. We're not only doing what Bellcore did, but we're also taking over central office code administration and all the coordination of meetings for doing relief planning across the country. Even Bellcore was happy to get out of this because it is so complicated."
In a prepared statement, Bellcore CEO Sanjiv Ahuja had this to say: "Bellcore is proud of its record of administering the North American Numbering Plan during a period of unprecedented growth in telecommunications -- and in demand for telephone numbers and area codes. We wish Lockheed Martin IMS every success as they take on this new challenge, and we pledge our support for a smooth transition."
To handle its increased workload, Lockheed will have 31 full-time employees devoted to area-code administration, compared with four or five employees at Bellcore.
The North American Numbering Plan was devised by the former Bell System in 1947 to provide enough telephone numbers for an expected boom in demand for telephone service. That year, 86 codes were assigned, and customers began using them in Englewood, N.J., in 1951 to dial long-distance calls.
Conners says the current plan for NANP relief goes back to the 1960s, when telecom engineers at AT&T realized that the nation would eventually run out of codes in the old format. That's when the new format, allowing the middle digit of a code to be a 2 through 9, was designed. In the interim, the requirement that local prefixes not have a 0 or 1 as a middle digit was gradually scrapped -- beginning in Los Angeles in 1971.
"That extended the life of busier area codes, and kept the supply going until 1995, when we took the major step of converting area codes into the new format," said Conners. So far, out of 792 codes available, 247 have been assigned -- 92 of them since the new format began on Jan. 15, 1995, with the inauguration of the 334 code in southern Alabama, and the 360 code in eastern Washington state.
Over the next 12 months, Conners says he anticipates roughly 30 new area-code splits or overlays. At an average seven meetings per relief activity, that means Lockheed will have to facilitate 210 public meetings across the United States and Canada -- meetings involving consumers, businesses, phone companies, RBOCs and state public service commissions.
Doug Hescox, who oversees area-code administration for California and Nevada, says California already has the most area codes of any state -- 19 -- and will need to add 13 more by the end of the year 2000 to keep pace with demand.
"The rising demand for additional phone numbers is caused by the increased use of fax machines, pagers, cellular phones, modems for Internet access and other high-tech equipment such as ATMs and pay-point services," he said, "all of which require phone lines."
That explosive growth is not confined to huge metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago.
Three months after adding its fourth area code, North Carolina added two more new codes in March, making the state only the ninth in the country with six or more area codes. North Carolina's 252 and 828 codes were activated Mar. 22 in areas now served by 704 and 919; last December, the state's Triad region received a new code, 336, to extend the life of the 910 code.
"During the past several years, North Carolina has enjoyed tremendous economic growth in all areas of the state," said J. Billie Ray, state president of BellSouth. "That has created the need to add four new area codes in only four years."
In Pennsylvania, the state's public utility commission recently approved a split of the 717 code serving the Harrisburg-York-Scranton area, and the possible creation of a new area code that would overlay the 215 and 610 codes in southeastern Pennsylvania.
At the same time, the commission reiterated its commitment to implementing a more efficient means of allocating phone numbers in order to significantly delay creation of additional area codes. The PUC said its actions "are necessary in order to avoid additional shortages of exchange codes."
Comments will be accepted until Apr. 10 on the 215-610 order, with final orders approved by May 27. According to the PUC, "there is a possibility that the lives of the 215 and 610 area codes may be extended and that creation of the new code may not be necessary," thanks in part to local number portability, which is now being implemented in Philadelphia.
Area-code splits are almost always unpopular, especially when they divide a big metropolitan area into two, three or even four codes. The only alternative -- an "overlay" that allows customers to keep their existing codes but assigns a new code to customers signing up after a certain date -- is also controversial. Some telcos say it discriminates against new businesses because the new codes makes it easy for customers to tell which companies are well-established and which haven't been in business long. Overlays also require 10-digit dialing for people long used to dialing only seven digits.
"We don't have any enforcement policy," says Conners. "We find ourselves in a very delicate situation, though here at Lockheed we have more teeth, since some FCC regulations have been codified."
He adds: "It's not a job where you can please everybody. The FCC says that when you have an overlay, you must have 10-digit dialing for competitive reasons, although it's not technically necessary. I hope 10-digit dialing will [eventually] be required nationwide. I think it would be a great service to the public if we had uniform dialing arrangements throughout the country."
The first jurisdiction to implement statewide 10-digit dialing was Maryland, which is getting two new codes, 240 and 443, to work concurrently with the existing 301 and 410 codes. Overlay codes have also been approved for Atlanta (678), the Tampa-St. Petersburg area (727) and Denver (720).
New York has a proposed 646 overlay for Manhattan's 212, though the state's public service commission has petitioned the FCC to waive the 10-digit dialing require-ment, arguing that "in that particular jurisdiction, it would not be a competitive issue."
Feb. 20 marked the beginning of an 18-month transition period in which the assign-ment of central office codes, or telephone prefixes, will pass from the RBOCs and GTE to Lockheed. "The administration of all this numbering stuff needs to be a neutral third party," says Conners. "A lot of these people coming in for numbers don't feel comfortable giving their data to the RBOCs, which are currently the administrators of prefixes."
Conners adds: "We're running out of area codes because we're running out of prefixes. It's really nobody's fault. There are a lot of new services. I alone have seven or eight numbers. When I was a kid in Kansas, we had only one black phone, and we were lucky to have it."
According to industry experts, each area code yields approximately 7.5 million telephone numbers. Shortages are caused in large part by the telecommunications industry's current requirement to use one exchange code per rate center for each carrier. A wireless carrier or a new carrier competing with the local phone company therefore receives the full block of 10,000 numbers even if it needs only a few. Numbers not given to customers go unused, but cannot be returned for use by other carriers.
Since early 1997, Bell Atlantic has been helping to lead an industry panel charged with developing the technology and standards for "number pooling." This new capability will allow carriers to obtain phone numbers in blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000. However, industry experts doubt pooling will be available before the first half of 1999.
"When number pooling becomes available, it will help stretch out the supply of phone numbers," said Thomas DeSisto, executive director of regulatory issue for Bell Atlantic-Massachusetts, which has just added two area codes in the last six months. "There has been a gold rush for new exchange codes. The code administrator has informed Bell Atlantic and all Massachusetts carriers that based on the volume of recent requests, immediate conservation of telephone exchange codes is needed."
Even with the new area-code format and number pooling, based on current growth rates, the United States will eventually run out of phone numbers. Lockheed has already given some thought to the idea of enlarging local phone numbers from seven digits to eight -- a step that has already been taken in France, Germany, Japan and São Paulo, Brazil.
But Hasselwander of the North American Numbering Council says "that's something we'd like to avoid for a long time. To do that would be very expensive, something on the order of the Year 2000 problem. "
Just in case, however, two blocks of reserve codes -- 37X and 96X -- have been set aside to allow two numbering systems to operate in parallel while phone numbers are converted from 10 digits (including the area code) to 12 digits or more.
"The 10-digit format can last until 2025 or beyond," says Conners. "If we're really lucky, we can make it last until the middle of the next century."