The staff of the Public Service Commission yesterday came out against a plan that would split Maryland geographically into four area codes when the supply of 410 and 301 telephone numbers runs out in about two years.
Instead, the PSC staff supported a plan proposed by Bell Atlantic Corp. that would require Marylanders' fingers to do a little more walking each time they make a local call. Under the so-called "overlay" plan, seven-digit local dialing would go the way of the 10-cent pay phone call.
The staff-backed plan would add two new area codes within the boundaries of 410, which serves the Baltimore area and the Eastern Shore, and 301, which serves the Washington suburbs and Western Maryland. When the supply of 410 or 301 numbers is exhausted, new lines would be assigned numbers with the new area codes, which have yet to be assigned.
"We feel that this is the least disruptive and most forward-looking approach," said Michael Starkey, director of the PSC's telecommunications division. He said any geographic split might have to be repeated in three or four years as the demand for new numbers for wireless phones, modems, pagers, second lines and other uses increases.
"Basically the only real upfront pain that comes from the overlay is this 10-digit dialing and we feel that's sort of inevitable anyway," Mr. Starkey said.
The final decision will be made by the five-member PSC, which is expected to consider the matter next month after a series of public hearings on the issue. More often than not, the commission follows the recommendations of its staff, but approval of its position is by no means automatic.
The commission will have several choices. But each alternative has something for somebody to loathe.
Opponents argue that if the PSC chooses the overlay, consumers conceivably could be faced with a confusing system under which a second telephone line into the den could have a different area code from the phone line in the kitchen. And both sides agree that calling your next-door neighbor would require dialing 10 digits even if his area code was the same as your own.
If the commission chooses any form of geographical split, about half of the state's telephone customers would be thrown into new area codes -- requiring expensive changes on business cards, signage and stationery, as well as the reprogramming of thousands of cellular phones. Businesses are understandably cool to the idea, and the PSC staff urged the commissioners to avoid any number changes if possible.
If the PSC were to ignore that recommendation and adopt the map the industry identified as the best choice, it would symbolically cut off Baltimore from most of its suburbs and split Montgomery County in two. But any replacement map the commissioners redrew themselves would probably not accommodate future growth as well.
Punting the issue back to the industry might seem to be the most attractive option, but any delay would later shorten the "grace period" under which callers are given time to get used to new area codes.
In taking its stand, the PSC staff rejected the arguments of Bell Atlantic's prospective competitors in the local telephone business, including MFS Communications Corp., MCImetro, Teleport Communications Group and ATT Corp.
The rival telephone companies supported a geographic split, arguing that overlay plans put new entrants to the market at a competitive disadvantage because they would receive a disproportionate share of numbers with the new, unfamiliar area codes.
"If a consumer served out of the 301 or 410 [number planning area] considers the service of a competitive local exchange carrier, that consumer will not only have to contemplate changing his seven-digit telephone number, but will also now have to contemplate changing his area code as well," Teleport said in its comments to the commission. "Clearly this works to the incumbent carrier's favor."
But the PSC staff said any adverse impact on competition would be short-lived. It contended that the disadvantage to new entrants would be mitigated because the commission has ordered Bell Atlantic and other telephone companies to implement a system of "number portability" by the end of 1996. Under such a system, Bell Atlantic customers who want to switch to another local carrier would be able to take their phone numbers with them.