Tired of telephone tag? People who want to be reached anywhere they go -- at home, the office, a friend's residence or at a vacation house -- can sign up for a single telephone number under a service to begin in June that AT&T announced yesterday.
The service, the first of its kind, is part of the emerging technology for personal communications networks that could someday revolutionize how people use telephones.
The service is somewhat cumbersome and is aimed mainly at consumers, who tend to phone less often than business customers and make their calls during off-peak hours such as early morning and evening.
But it is an important first step toward communications networks in which single phone numbers would be assigned to customers everywhere, allowing phone calls someday to follow them to any location if they wish.
Under the plan, subscribers to the nationwide service, called Easy Reach 700, would be assigned a permanent long-distance number that begins with 700.
Unlike most traditional area codes, the 700 does not identify a location, and the individual numbers would remain with the subscribers as long as they lived.
The average American changes his telephone number 11 times in 11 changes of residence during a lifetime, AT&T said.
The 700 code allows for 6 million possible phone numbers. Nearly 10 million numbers are possible but some are reserved for other uses.
The EasyReach program will cost $7 a month and a one-time charge of $25 for the personal phone number, which can be adapted like vanity automobile license plates to contain messages, such as 700-CALLMOM.
It does not require a separate line or an extra phone, but subscribers to MCI and Sprint must dial into the AT&T network to use the service.
Callers will be billed at fixed rates, rather than rates based on distance. State-to-state rates will be 25 cents a minute from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and 15 cents a minute at other times, roughly comparable or slightly more expensive than regular toll calls. Prices for in-state calls will vary, according to the local telephone company.
The vast majority of customers for the nation's 140 million telephone lines will want to keep their familiar local telephone numbers for their homes, facsimile machines, computer modems and pagers. But if that number does not answer, a caller might then dial the 700 number.
The service, available June 15, allows subscribers to program any nearby phone to receive a redirected call from a residence or business phone.
The EasyReach subscriber would dial 0-700, then the personal number, then a four-digit personal identification number, then 1, then the pound sign, and finally the number to which calls are to go.
Unlike Call Forwarding available from local telephone companies, the new service allows the forwarding of calls at the subscribers' discretion as many times as they wish.
Another difference is that the new service can be programmed from any push-button phone, which is far more convenient for people on the go than today's services, which require the subscriber to go back to the original phone to enter each new destination.
Moreover, the subscriber can assign four-digit numbers to friends and relatives to allow only the calls that are wanted. The subscriber can hand out as many as 19 of these password numbers.
EasyReach "could have some of the same drawbacks of Call Forwarding now," said Elena M. Worrall, director of voice services at Bellcore, the research arm of the regional Bell operating companies. "If you forget to undo the Call Forwarding, all your calls will go to the place you already were."
The new programs, involving millions of lines of computer code, buildpersonal profiles of subscribers that allow the computers to route calls quickly to any telephone line in the country, except Hawaii and Alaska.
Robert M. Aquilina, network services vice president for AT&T, said, "Without a 700 number, this service just wouldn't be possible," because the problem of updating the computers' data bases would be vastly more complex.
The EasyReach program could provide valuable lessons for establishing the vastly more complicated personal communications networks that would tie together residential and business customers, traditional telephones, along with cellular telephones, pagers and other hand-held devices.
"The first thing we'll learn is whether people want this service," Mr. Aquilina said. "This goes from the academic to the marketplace."
Call Forwarding has been available since the late 1960s but is second in popularity to Call Waiting.
About 30 percent of eligible U.S. telephone customers use Call Waiting, while about 5 percent use Call Forwarding.
EasyReach applies mainly to traditional telephones tethered to a wall. But the service can also apply to cellular telephones, although it would require such wireless phones to be left on indefinitely and be registered with a "roaming" service whenever the subscriber leaves the home carrier's service area.