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Splitting headache: Maryland's area-code overlay
Telephony / May 12, 1997

By Larry Luxner

BETHESDA, Md. -- Maryland's new "overlay" approach to the state's telephone number shortage is raising a storm of protest from MCI, AT&T and various consumer groups who say the change is inconvenient, confusing and unfair.

The plan, championed by incumbent local carrier Bell Atlantic, was approved back in November 1995 by the Maryland Public Service Commission -- making Maryland the first state in the nation to stack new area codes on top of existing ones. According to the PSC, Maryland's two new codes, 240 and 443, will likely go into service by year's end alongside 301, which already serves the Washington suburbs and western Maryland, and 410, which covers Baltimore and the Eastern Shore.

To prepare for 240 and 443, Maryland customers must now dial the three-digit area code and seven-digit local number for every single call -- even if the call is across the street or to a second line in the customer's own home. After May 15, calls in which the area code isn't dialed simply won't go through.

But Steve Molnar, director of the PSC's telecommunications division in Baltimore, says that's better than dividing Maryland -- already a small state -- into tinier and tinier geographical zones, forcing customers to change area codes again and again.

"The commission felt the overlay approach would achieve several objectives," Molnar told Telephony. "It was considered to be less disruptive to the public, it was the least costly option, and the commission believes that it was competitively neutral."

Molnar says he has no idea how long Maryland's supply of phone numbers would last with either the overlay vs. geographic split, or what the relative costs are to implement each method. He did recall, however, that "when we added the 410 code several years ago, our experience was that the public disliked receiving a new area code immensely. Under an overlay, everyone keeps his telephone number."

MCI, AT&T, MFS Corp. and the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, a Baltimore-based consumer group, all fought against the Bell Atlantic approach.

"MCI strongly opposed this plan when it was proposed in Maryland, and we will strongly oppose it anywhere else that the local monopolies try to use it -- and that includes Virginia, another state that Bell Atlantic has targeted for 10-digit dialing," said C.K. "Chip" Casteel, MCI regional policy executive. "MCI strongly urges other state utility commissions to adopt the MCI-supported geographic split solution and avoid the inconvenient 10-digit dialing that Maryland customers must now endure."

To date, no other state PSC has chosen the overlay method. In fact, MCI spokesman Bernie Tylor says Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, Florida and Texas have all rejected overlays, and California -- which is projected to have 26 area codes by the year 2000 -- has actually imposed a two-year ban on anyone being able to file an overlay plan.

According to Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette, the company is spending $11 million on the overlay, including network conversion and a "Ten-Number Number" media blitz that includes everything from radio and TV ads to coloring books for children.

"If we had done a geographical split, some customers still would have had to dial 10 digits. Really, it was easier to implement 10-digit dialing across the board rather than have it for some customers and not others." She adds that 10-digit dialing "is inevitable, with the way technology is evolving and the fact we have so many telephone numbers assigned to us."

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