Not Enough Phone Numbers

June 18, 1995

Just when we had adjusted to a new telephone area code for the Baltimore region (410), after decades of living with the old 301 code for the entire state, along comes news that two more area codes are in the works. Pretty soon, we'll have to lug around a pocket-sized phone book to divine the correct three-digit code for an in-state call.

The culprit is the furious pace of innovation in the telecommunications industry. Fax machines, computer modems, pagers and cellular phones are chewing up the available three-digit "precepts" -- that's the first three numbers you dial for a local call -- in the 410 and 301 areas. Within a couple of years, we'll be out of precepts, and thus out of new numbers even as technology creates more and more reasons to add extra telephone lines.

Take just one burgeoning company, America Online, that hooks computers up to all sorts of electronic bulletin boards, including the Internet. The company has seen a 10-fold growth in subscribers in just two years, from 275,000 to 2.5 million. Each subscriber needs a telephone line.

When Bell Atlantic split Maryland in two (410 encompasses metro Baltimore and the Eastern Shore) a mere three years ago, crystal ball readers predicted that would satisfy demand until 2005. Wrong. So much for trying to guess how technology advances will affect existing household equipment.

A consortium of telephone industry experts has offered two possible solutions. Either split Maryland into four area codes or "overlay" a new area code on top of the existing 301 and 410 codes. That would mean new phone subscribers would get the new area codes, but it also would mean trouble for the rest of us, who would have to figure out the correct area code for our friends and neighbors.

Confusion with the overlay plan would be considerable. In some cases, making a telephone call could become a nightmare. Further segmenting Maryland with area codes Nos. 3 and 4 would be simpler for most folks to figure out.

Even that won't be a panacea. Once everyone has a flip-up pocket phone to carry around, the sky could be the limit: An office phone number, a home phone, a portable pocket phone, a car phone, a fax phone, a modem phone and maybe a spare phone to order movies, etc. Such is life on the information superhighway.

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