FCC puts its finger on phone solution

Herald staff and news services

WASHINGTON — The nation’s supply of phone numbers is dwindling, so the government is taking steps to make sure what is left lasts longer.

The growth of pagers, cell phones and fax machines has put a squeeze on the nation’s numbering plan, prompting a proliferation of new area codes across the country. Left on its own, the current system could expire in the next 10 years.

Seeking to push back this date by several decades, the Federal Communications Commission is weighing measures it could enact today to make better use of the 2 billion numbers already allocated and several billion more still untapped.

For example, the commission has sought comment on whether to charge phone companies for numbers they now get for free. That could force carriers to ensure they have exhausted their supply before requesting new numbers. Industry officials say that if they are charged a fee for numbers, that cost could end up being passed on to consumers.

The FCC also is looking at what criteria telecommunications companies should meet before they qualify for additional numbers.

The agency has focused on making the existing distribution and use of numbers more efficient. Earlier this year, the FCC moved to allocating phone numbers to local carriers in blocks of 1,000. The problem with the old system, which gave carriers 10,000 numbers at a time, was that if a company had only 100 customers in a given region, the remaining 9,900 numbers of the block were tied up.

That’s created a serious problem, especially in the tech-heavy Northwest, which has added several area codes in recent years and has plans for a new "overlay" area code next year.

Snohomish County, for example, has two area codes already — 360 and 425 — and would get a third — 564 — next year. The newest area code would cover the same physical territory as 360, the first such code in Washington state, hence the name overlay.

The FCC hopes these preservation tools will make it possible to avoid more extreme measures, such as adding new numbers or mandating that consumers nationwide routinely dial area codes even for local calls. That’s already the case locally, since the county has two area codes.

The telephone industry has supported 10-digit dialing because it would create a uniform system nationwide. It would also add to the numbering pool, because seven-digit numbers cannot now begin with 0 or 1, but they could if preceded by an area code.

Six states already have some form of 10-digit dialing, including Washington.

But state regulators argue a nationwide requirement would place enormous burdens on consumers and small businesses. That would force them to reprogram their equipment and reprint stationery or other material.

"It won’t save enough numbers to be worth the incredible inconvenience," said New Hampshire Public Utilities Commissioner Nancy Brockway.

States should focus first on making better use of existing numbers, she said. In New Hampshire, the switch from allocating 10,000- to 1,000-number blocks will allow the state to stick indefinitely with its one existing area code.

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