New area code divides, conquers problem for now Phones multiplying as fast as solutions

November 01, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

Eastern Maryland's new 410 area code, which takes effect today, is getting a harsh reception from many Baltimoreans, who are greeting it with all the relish of middle age.

"I'll get used to it, just like I got used to going bald," said John M. Glynn, people's counsel at the state Public Service Commission. "Ultimately, it's something you can live with, but there's no denying it attacks your sense of who you are."

The new 410 area code will cover the eastern half of the state, including Baltimore. The western half of Maryland, the counties bordering Washington and part of Southern Maryland will hang on to the 301 area code that has been identified with the state for the past 45 years.

Though 410 makes its debut today, the old code will still work until November 1992. Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. is allowing a one-year grace period, during which either area code can be used.

Still, the fact that 301 will disappear east of the Patuxent River has some folks a little peeved.

"I don't know why they chose the downtown district, where there are the most heavily used telephone numbers, to change. It really makes me angry. I just got my business cards done, and now they're all wrong," said Joy Marcus, director of program and member services at the Downtown Athletic Club.

The decision to switch area codes in the eastern half of the state -- home to the largest city and the state capital -- raised some eyebrows when announced by C&P last fall.

Two of those eyebrows belonged to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who privately buttonholed his pal, then-C&P Chairman J. Henry "Hank" Butta, about the change.

Mr. Butta said that the governor let him know he wasn't pleased about the decision. But he had to hold to his original decision. The reason: It would have cost up to $3 million more to switch the other half of Maryland, mainly due to the cost of reprogramming equipment there.

But those who bemoan the passing of 301 and curse the telephone company for the intrusion should count their telephonic blessings. It could get worse, and probably will. Another 10 years from now, dialing 10 digits or more to call another block in the neighborhood, let alone another county or city in the state, will be more the rule than the exception.

That's because demand for numbers is rapidly outstripping supply. The proliferation of cellular phones, faxes, pagers, computer modems and other equipment that use phone lines has put a strain on the nation's telephone numbering system, which was devised in the days when long-distance calls weren't so commonplace and portable phones were still the stuff of science fiction.

To keep up with demand for fresh numbers, phone companies have been forced to perform what amounts to a mathematical sleight-of-hand.

Some phone companies, for example, have taken to splitting some of their larger cities into several area codes. Topping the list is Los Angeles, which will get its third area code tomorrow. A fourth is scheduled to be added next year.

Los Angeles residents are taking the changes in stride, said Michael Heffer, senior staff member of Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. "It's one of those annoying headaches that people had rather not deal with, but you have no choice," he said.

In New York, Manhattan is taking steps to hold onto its dwindling supply of numbers within one of the world's most recognizable area codes -- 212. Starting in January, New York Telephone Co. will begin as signing pagers and cellular phones a new area code -- 917. In July, it plans to switch over the Bronx, now under the 212 area code, to the same 718 area code used by Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Paul Davidson, a spokesman for New York Telephone, said that the idea is to get back as many 212 numbers as it can, as fast as it can, to keep up with demand for the status code.

But even with the recall of 212 numbers, New York Telephone still can't guarantee that Manhattanites will always be able to claim 212 for their own.

Maryland has a new numbering scheme waiting in the wings as well.

Starting in June 1993, C&P will begin using some local exchange numbers in two parts of the state. Under this "duplication" system, the 332 exchange, now used only in Baltimore (area code 410), might also show up in, say, Montgomery County (area code 301).

Bellcore, the research arm of the seven Bell phone companies and keeper of the nation's telephone numbering system, acknowledges that such overlay systems aren't the ideal solution.

But for now, they may be the only solution, because Bellcore is almost out of numbers.

Cynthia Lucenius, a Bellcore spokeswoman, said only three unassigned area codes remain out of the original 144 that Ma Bell started out with in 1947 when area codes were introduced.

"We originally thought we would run out of numbers a lot more quickly than we have," said Ms. Lucenius.

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