New Area Code: SOS

September 06, 1995

The staff of the Public Service Commission and the local telephone giant, Bell Atlantic Corp., want to solve the problem of dwindling phone numbers by pleasing technocrats rather than consumers. Their "solution" is sure to distress telephone users no end by forcing everyone to dial a 10-digit number even to contact a neighbor across the street.

Even worse, you'll have no idea if your neighbor shares your area code. Virtually every call will require a telephone book. The resulting chaos -- and furor -- is as predictable as night follows day. And yet the local telephone experts don't seem sensitive to the firestorm they could ignite.

An explosion of modems, fax machines, pagers and cellular phones has depleted the available phone numbers, even after Maryland was split into two area codes three years ago.

Telephone gurus suggest two options. Neither is user-friendly. One proposal creates four area codes, but in a bizarre configuration. The other plan "overlays" two new area codes on top of the existing 301 and 410 codes. Once 301 and 410 numbers run out, the new area codes kick in.

But that requires everyone to dial a 10-digit number every time a call is placed. And keeping track of which businesses and which friends are in the new (or old) area codes will be virtually impossible without a telephone book. What a mess.

Across the country, outrage has surfaced when new area codes are installed. Reprogramming business switchboards is complex and expensive. An overlay system offers the best technical solution but is a customer's nightmare.

Far better would be a common-sense division along regional lines: Separate area codes for the Eastern Shore; Western Maryland; Prince George's and Montgomery counties; Southern Maryland, and the Baltimore region. If that's not sufficient, P.G. and Montgomery could split; outlying Baltimore counties could join with rural area codes that have geographic and cultural affinity. Need more numbers? Create area codes just for cellular and wireless personal communications services.

This approach is easier to grasp and won't create chaos. When the PSC commissioners sit down to make their decision, they should keep the consumer's dilemma in mind. The objective should be to please Marylanders, not technocrats.

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