Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. told 126 Columbia residents last week that as far as it's concerned, the Kendall Ridge neighborhood in the Village of Long Reach is in Ellicott City.
But not to worry, the phone company says. It will change Columbia numbers to EllicottCity numbers for free. Or if people want to keep the numbers they now have, they can do so for $207 more a year.
For three customers with a "foreign" 854 exchange and 13 customers with a "foreign" 596 exchange, the cost is a little more. People with 854 numbers would have to pay $1,080 a year to keep their numbers,and people with 596 exchanges would have to pay $929 a year to keep theirs.
Both so-called foreign exchanges enable customers to dial and receive calls from Washington without tolls. The new exchanges will enable customers to call Towson and Hunt Valley without tolls.
Kendall Ridge was never intended to have a Columbia exchange, the phone company says, because Kendall Ridge is "geographically closer" to the Ellicott City control office than the Columbia control office.
The mistake came about because people, rather than a computer, assigned the numbers as people started moving into the area three years ago, the phone company says. It was a computer that found the error anda computer that is rectifying it. The computer assigns numbers on the basis of street addresses.
Humans had tried to do the same thing, but something went awry. Almost half the Kendall Ridge residents --126 out of 260 -- got the wrong number, the phone company says.
The phone company says it discovered the error in November during a conversion from manual to computerized methods of assigning telephone numbers. Because it was the company's mistake, customers will not be charged for past billing errors, the company says.
Debbie Carroll, a Kendall Ridge resident facing a 422 percent increase if she keeps her present number, doesn't think it was a mistake.
"I don't trust them," Carroll says. "I think this has to do with what happened afterthe (local) divisions separated" from the American Telephone and Telegraph Co.
Carroll sees the phone company's action as a way to raise rates and free up Columbia numbers without going through the statePublic Utilities Commission.
"It benefits them, not us," she says.
Meanwhile, Carroll has enlisted the support of another Kendall Ridge 854 user -- County Council member C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd -- to help convince the phone company not to do what its computer says it should.
"If there's a loophole, we'll find it," she says.
Finding one is not likely, the phone company says, because the numbers belongto the company, and not the customer. Customers merely rent the numbers.
The phone company says it sought to be sensitive in telling people to make arrangements to change their numbers by Feb. 7 or face a whopping increase in their monthly bills.
"We certainly do apologize for the billing error," that led to customers being undercharged, the company said in a Jan. 24 letter. "Again, we apologize for the error and any inconvenience to you."
"They were trying to be gracious," Carroll says. "At the same time, though they said, 'Boom! This is what you've got to do. We're sorry it affects a few of you.' "