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Bell Atlantic faces fight over area code plan
Telephony / October 9, 1995

By Larry Luxner

BALTIMORE -- At least half a dozen local exchange service providers, consumer groups and long-distance carriers looking to crack the local market are fighting a plan by Bell Atlantic that would create two "overlay" area codes for Maryland and require 10-digit dialing for the first time -- even for local calls.

Bell Atlantic, which assigns telephone numbers throughout the state, wants to add two new area codes within the current boundaries of 410 (which serves the Baltimore area) and 301 (serving suburban Washington and eastern Maryland). The state's five-member Public Service Commission, which backs this "overlay" plan, finished a series of public hearings on the issue last week and is expected to vote on it by late October or early November. If the plan is approved, 10-digit dialing will take effect around the third quarter of 1997.

Michael Starkey, director of the PSC's telecom division, calls the overlay plan "the least disruptive and most forward-looking approach," though he acknowledges that competing firms such as AT&T, MCI, Teleport Communications Group, Sprint and Metropolitan Fiber Systems all have valid concerns.

"They're concerned that when they try to lure customers, they'll be at a competitive disadvantage if they can't offer a 301 or 410 area code," he told Telephony. "People attach significance to the area code as far as its geographic identity, and also to the fact that from a marketing perspective, a new area code will mean a less-established company."

Starkey added that "a lot of chambers of commerce recommended the overlay, but residential customers said they'd rather have the split because they understand it, and they didn't want to dial 10 digits. We recommended the overlay because it's the most cost-effective, it provides the greatest longevity, and is somewhat less disruptive to customers because it requires no one to change their phone numbers. And 10-digit dialing will be inevitable anyway."

MCI couldn't disagree more. Its wholly owned subsidiary, MCImetro, is looking to enter 20 local markets including Baltimore by year's end, and says it's unfair that companies like MCI would be given exchanges in new, unfamiliar area codes while Bell Atlantic retains unused blocks of numbers in older exchanges.

"We support the geographic split for two reasons," said an MCI spokesman in Washington. "First, the overlay method is anti-consumer because with the introduction of new area codes in an area, a new customer could have two different area codes in the same household, so there's no way of knowing geographically who has which number. The possibilities for confusion are limitless. From a competitive point of view, new providers in a local market would be given the new area code. Second, we don't want to lay the groundwork down if we're going to be at a competitive disadvantage, because 80-90% of all customers do not want to switch carriers if it means switching telephone numbers. MCImetro is looking to enter 20 markets by year's end, Maryland being one of them. So there are very real concerns."

New York-based Teleport Communications agrees, saying that with the overlay method, "it would be very easy to determine who's the established business and who's the new kid on the block."

"In order for us to provide switched local exhcnage service, we require telephone numbers," says Teleport's Paul Kourapas. "One of the major obstacles we face in selling switched service is customers that have to change their phone numbers, and a lot of customers are reluctant to do that. But if Bell institutes the overlay plan, not only will they have to change their seven-digit number, they'll have to change their 10-digit number, and that makes our job harder. We don't think it's terribly equitable, since Bell is sitting on the whole customer base and will always have a reservoir of numbers."

Kourapas says another problem could arise if, say, a customer has 50 lines of Centrex service from Bell Atlantic and wants 50 more -- a problem that extends even to residential customers. "I might have 410 for my kitchen phone, and another area code for the phone in my bedroom. From a customer perspective that's not very good."

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