Seven-digit local calls likely to end Area code 'overlay' appears favored

November 01, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The future of the seven-digit local phone call seemed bleak yesterday as the Maryland Public Service Commission raised skeptical questions about a plan that would stave off its demise for nine more years.

Supporters of the plan, which would alleviate an impending shortage of telephone numbers by dividing the state's two area codes into four, told the PSC that their revised version of a geographical split answered most of the commissioners' objections to an earlier map.

That proposal -- based on an industry consensus of the best possible split but supported by virtually nobody -- would have placed Baltimore and Baltimore County in separate area codes and would have split Montgomery County.

The plan supported by the long distance-cable consortium eliminated the most unpalatable features of the first map.

But as the commission's hearings on the contentious issue wound to a close yesterday, it appeared that the long-dis-tance and cable television industries had been outgunned by Bell Atlantic Corp. and other supporters of a rival proposal that would require 10-digit dialing for all calls, even within the same neighborhoods.

With the exception of Commissioner Gerald Thorpe, PSC members lobbed few challenging questions at proponents of a plan that would "overlay" two additional area codes on top of the existing 301 and 410 codes when the current supply of numbers runs out. Because of the proliferation of cellular phones, modems and fax machines, Maryland is expected to exhaust its phone number supply in late 1997.

An overlay system has a crucial advantage over an area code split in that it would not require any phone customers -- particularly businesses -- to change their current phone numbers.

By contrast, any geographical split would force about half the state's phone users to switch to a new area code.

Witnesses who endorsed the geographical split attempted to minimize the effects of such changes.

"I believe the level of customer dissatisfaction or confusion over the proposed area code change is exaggerated," said Rick Cimerman, a former PSC telecommunications chief who appeared on behalf of the state cable television association.

But commissioners seemed more responsive to the concerns of the split's opponents. Commissioner Susanne Brogan asked one pro-overlay witness, Mick Smith of Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile, a question about how he would describe the effects on the cellular industry of the split between the 301 and 410 area codes three years ago.

"It being Halloween, would 'nightmare' be appropriate?" Mr. Smith replied.

The importance that Bell Atlantic is putting on the issue was underscored by the presence in the audience of Bell Atlantic-Maryland President Dan Whelan and lobbyist Gary Alexander, former Speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates.

Bell Atlantic-Maryland's lead witness, John Dillon, vice president for external affairs, said, "By adopting an overlay, we're sending a strong message to the business community that this is a business-friendly state."

Perhaps the strongest blow in favor of the overlay was struck by Michael Starkey, Mr. Cimerman's successor as director of telecommunications. Testifying for the PSC staff, which recently took a strongly pro-competitive stance in another important telecommunications case before the commission, he said claims that an overlay could hurt the prospects of Bell Atlantic's aspiring rivals were exaggerated.

"I don't think you can assume that, just because you're doing an overlay, you're hurting the competitive market," he said.

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