Telephony / March 11, 1996
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- The 809 area code, which has linked 19 Caribbean nations and territories for nearly 40 years, is finally being split up -- the victim of a telephone-number shortage, rampant phone fraud and latent national pride.
Bellcore Laboratories, which administers the North American Numbering Plan from its Livingston, N.J., headquarters, says that 809 -- which since 1958 has preceded phone numbers from Bermuda to Trinidad -- is rapidly using up its 692 available local exchanges because of a proliferation of fax machines, pagers, cellular phones and other devices. Likewise, North America was itself running out of virgin area codes to assign.
But in the last two years, a new generation of codes in which the middle digit can be any number from 2 through 9 has opened up hundreds of new possibilities, and Caribbean islands haven't wasted a minute staking their claims. The coming 809 split was even the subject of a regional conference held last week in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
The first of 809's breakaway islands, Bermuda, got its own code -- 441 -- on Oct. 1, 1995. Likewise, Puerto Rico began using 787 on Mar. 1 and Antigua changed to 268 a month later.
Other Caribbean area code changes include St. Lucia (757), Montserrat (664) and Barbados (246), all effective July 1; Bahamas (242) in October, and St. Kitts-Nevis (869), Grenada (473), British Virgin Islands (284) and Trinidad & Tobago (868), all in 1997.
According to reliable industry sources, however, four other Caribbean nations or territories have requested and received their own codes for future use: Cayman Islands (345); Jamaica (876); St. Vincent (758) and the Turks & Caicos Islands (649).
"It's a delicate issue," said a Bellcore spokesman who asked not to be identified. "The administration of resources is different in the Caribbean than in the U.S. or Canada because there are sovereign states involved. We are extremely aware of their national feelings. That's why we're nervous about confirming or denying information."
National feelings aside, not very Caribbean nation will be affected by the changes. Cuba, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles all have their own international dialing codes and have never been part of the North American Numbering Plan. Yet when representatives from the 809 countries met last year at a telecom gathering in Trinidad, they decided their islands, too, were entitled to their own area codes.
Perhaps the most forthcoming about the switch has been Puerto Rico, which occupies 35% of all local exchanges within 809.
"Because of the great demand for telephone service throughout the Caribbean, where at present 19 islands share the 809 area code, we confront a situation in which phone numbers would only be available until mid-1996," said Agustín García, president of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company. "This situation has forced us to look for alternatives to guarantee our people the supply of phone numbers necessary to continue satisfying residential and commercial service, cellular phones, beepers and PCS technology. Moving to another area code will permit us to meet this demand."
Roberto Correa, network planning director at PRTC, said his company picked 787 because the numbers spell "PUR" -- Puerto Rico's official designation by the International Olympic Committee -- and because 787 is easy to remember. Switching out of 809, he said, will cost the phone company about $3 million in publicity and network adjustments.
"We have been trying to inform everyone through the long-distance carriers that the change is coming," he said, adding that Puerto Rico's new area code becomes mandatory on Jan. 31, 1997. "They're as worried as we are, but do we change or do we run out of numbers?"
The number shortage, however, is hardly the only factor in this case.
"Quite a number of administrations have blocked access to 809 -- particularly in the cellular industry, because there are major fraud concerns," says David Hanna, acting assistant general manager of customer services at Bahamas Telecommunications Corp. (Batelco).
The biggest fraud involves what Hanna delicately calls "fantasy termination points" -- otherwise known as dial-a-porn. Every day, thrill-seekers around the world use other people's phones, without permission, to dial up widely advertised 809 sex numbers in the Dominican Republic, where such calls are a legitimate source of revenue for Codetel, the national phone monopoly. When the bills come, customers often refuse to pay. Instead of fighting, some U.S. phone companies have solved the problem by automatically blocking access to all 809 numbers -- prompting the other countries to flee 809 as fast as they can.
"This is a contributing factor," concedes Agustín Rosa, technical assistant at Codetel. "The fraud is in the use of black boxes, though I can't measure the percentages or the magnitude of the problem. It's not just in the Dominican Republic, it's happening in other islands too."
Rosa adds, however, that national pride may also have something to do with the breakup of 809. "Every country has its own government and its own constitution. So they need to have their own area code that gives it an identity as a nation."
Agrees Batelco's Hanna: "It uniquely identifies a country. Telephone administrators love things like that. With our own area code, when we want to negotiate different rates or tariffs, we won't have to go into the sixth digit of a phone number to determine where that administration is."
According to Rosa, the Dominican Republic -- with about 600,000 lines in service -- plans to stay in 809. If it does, it will end up sharing the venerable area code with three English-speaking jurisdictions: Anguilla, Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands.