Md. phone users face 10-digit local dialing PSC approves 'overlay' plan for 2 new area codes in '97

November 23, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The seven-digit phone call to the neighbor down the street will fade into history under a decision issued yesterday by the state Public Service Commission.

Faced with a need for two new area codes in Maryland, the PSC decided the lesser of two evils was to "overlay" the new prefixes within the boundaries of the existing 410 and 301 prefixes. Thus, a longtime Baltimore-area resident could have a 410 number while a new neighbor could have a different area code.

Under the overlay system, millions of Marylanders will have to dial 10 digits for each local call -- no matter how short the distance -- beginning about two years from now.

By a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Susanne Brogan dissenting, the PSC rejected an alternative that would have split the two existing area codes along geographic lines.

The commission said that under the plan no existing subscribers will be forced to change their current numbers. The PSC also emphasized that the decision has no effect on what is a local call and what is a toll call.

Until 1992, Maryland made do with a single area code -- 301. When the state was split in two that year to create the 410 area code, that solution was expected to settle matters until 2012.

But in June, Bell Atlantic Corp. notified the commission that the ,, state would run out of 301 and 410 phone numbers by late 1997 because of an unexpectedly rapid increase in the number of cellular phones, fax machines, computer modems, pagers and other electronic devices.

Area codes unknown

What the two new area codes will be is not known at this time. They will be assigned by Bellcore, a research arm of the telephone industry that acts as administrator of the nation's telephone numbering plan.

About the only thing that is certain is that the new codes will not have the traditional "1" or "0" in the middle. Those numbers, too, have been exhausted as states and provinces throughout North America have had to add new area codes.

The PSC's decision to support an overlay was a victory for Bell Atlantic and a setback for its potential rivals in the local telephone industry, which is gradually moving from monopoly to competition.

John Dillon, vice president of external affairs for Bell Atlantic, said he was "delighted" by the decision.

"When you looked at it objectively, the overlay was the only way to go," Mr. Dillon said.

Bernie Tylor, a spokesman for MCI Communications Corp., said the long-distance company and prospective Bell Atlantic rival regrets that the PSC did not choose a geographic split.

"We felt it was better for competition and best for consumers," he said.

Mr. Dillon said the first numbers with the new area codes will begin to be assigned in late 1996 or early 1997.

He said that during a "permissive" dialing period of six months to a year, seven-digit local calls to numbers with the same area code would continue to go through. However, as of an unspecified date in late 1997, all local calls will require 10 digits.

Least disruptive

Bell Atlantic and other supporters of the overlay plan argued that it would be the least disruptive solution for business because none would have to change their business cards, stationery or signage as a result of being placed in one of the new area codes. That argument drew the support of the state Chamber of Commerce and local business groups throughout the state.

Cellular phone companies joined in the support for the overlay, ,, fearing that a geographical split could force half their customers to bring in their phones for costly reprogramming.

Opponents of the overlay included MCI, AT&T Corp., MFS Communications Corp., the state's cable television industry and the state Office of People's Counsel.

The chief concern of Bell Atlantic's potential rivals was that they would be assigned a disproportionate share of the unfamiliar -- and presumably less desirable -- area codes. They also argued that the overlay solution was too confusing and could lead to cases where a customer could have two lines in the same home or business with different area codes.

Geographical problems

The problem facing overlay opponents was that none of the alternatives for a geographical split was particularly appealing. One would have split Baltimore from Baltimore County; another would have split the city off from Glen Burnie and Annapolis.

The commission said yesterday that the overlay was "the most far-sighted, least disruptive and most economical proposal."

The decision stated that "advocates of the split alternative have seriously underestimated the disruptions and costs that occur when one is forced to change one's phone number."

Accepting overlay proponents' arguments that 10-digit dialing was inevitable, the PSC noted that even with a split, customers would have to make many 10-digit local calls.

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