Phoning 401 for 410 is just a reflexive glitch Hitting wrong area code proves least of problems of switch.

November 25, 1991|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Evening Sun Staff

If you keep dialing 401 instead of the new 410 area code, you are not alone.

The problem that many people are having stems from the similarity between the old area code, 301, and the new area code, according to Alfonso Caramazza, professor and chairman of the department of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University.

"Since you're used to 301, you have a tendency to punch 01," he says. "People might have learned it more easily if it had been something like 999 rather than 410."

Such simple cognitive glitches -- normally overcome in time -- cannot compare with some of the other difficulties posed by the Nov. 1 code change, however.

A larger problem for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. is the failure of some businesses to reprogram their phone systems to recognize the new area code. These systems, which are common among business, generally go by the initials PBX for private branch exchange.

Not only do local companies have to have their systems reprogrammed, but also the thousands of businesses across the company with private systems must adjust their systems. Otherwise, people using those systems cannot call Maryland using 410.

Claude M. Ligon, a commissioner for the state Public Service Commission, found this out firsthand when he was in San Antonio recently for a conference and tried calling his Baltimore office from his hotel. He couldn't call on 410, so he used 301.

Later he raised the matter at a hearing with C&P, and the telephone company found that the hotel had not changed its PBX.

Changing a system is a relatively simple process and takes only a few minutes, according to Richard Morgan, manager of the Hyatt Regency Baltimore. More expensive and time-consuming is the change in all the stationery and other advertising matter that will come with the changeover.

There is no precise way of determining how many people are mistakenly dialing 401, the area code for Rhode Island. But C&P spokesman Al Burman says there have been a few instances in which journalists have erroneously printed or broadcast the wrong area code. But he says this has been rare among the hundreds of stories done on the switch-over.

However, people have another 11 months to learn the new area code, since they can use either 410 or 301 until Nov. 1, 1992. The area code is being changed in the Baltimore metropolitan area, the entire Eastern Shore, Calvert County and most of Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. The rest of the state will keep the 301 code.

While it may have been helpful to have a different area code, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland may not have had a choice. By the time the telephone company decided to add the 410 area code, the selection had probably dwindled to those numbers that end in 10.

The area codes are assigned by Bellcore, the research and development company that is owned jointly by the seven regional Bell companies. Bellcore spokeswoman Cynthia A. Lucenius says the area codes had been restricted to numbers that have either 0 or 1 as the second digit. Obviously, the combination 10 has been particularly unpopular, because the only remaining unassigned numbers are 810, 910 and 210, Lucenius says.

This will change in 1995 when the second digit of new area codes will range from 2 through 9, she says.

The local telephone companies are not responsible for changing the PBX systems of individual businesses. Instead, this falls to the hundreds of distributors of PBX systems that install and maintain the systems. Bellcore sent notices to these companies about the change starting in December 1990.

One such company is Telecommunication Concepts Inc., a Springfield, Va., firm that serves about 350 business in the Baltimore-Washington area. Daniel M. Testa, president of Telecommunication Concepts, is confident that the systems of his customers have been reprogramed to recognize the 410 area code.

For the 30 percent of Testa's customers that have digital systems, the process of changing over is as simple as dialing the computer using a modem and reprograming the system over the phone. For the 70 percent that have analog systems, a company representative has to make a visit to the business to reprogram ** the computer. But even that is a simple matter, Testa says.

An isolated problem with using 410 arose because of C&P's changing its system so that local calls can be made using 10 or 11 digits.

Until recently, customers could make local calls only by using a seven-digit number. If they tried using 301 or 1-301, they would get a message saying the call could not be completed. After customers complained that this was inconvenient because they were uncertain which numbers were local and which were long-distance, C&P in the last few months changed its system so that local calls could be made using 7, 10 or 11 digits.

But a caller recently trying to use the 410 code on a local call couldn't get through and used the 301 instead. Burman says the problem was restricted to one downtown station and it has been corrected.

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