Phone Shift Rings Bells

As Deadline Nears For Area Code Change, Full Impact Settles In

Reality Arrives Thursday

10-digit Dialing Affects Home Security Alarms, Internet, Faxes, More

April 27, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Modern life gets a little more complicated Thursday when Maryland becomes the first state in the country to switch to 10-digit local telephone dialing.

Bell Atlantic has peppered billboards, radio waves and even schoolchildren with reminders, but many people still don't realize the full ramifications of adding the area code to every local phone call.

Elevator phones with automatic dialing have to be reprogrammed. Most home alarm systems need to be reconfigured, usually at the expense of the customer. Internet access, call forwarding, speed dialing -- it all has to change.

"I think most people haven't thought about it," said Robert Self, who monitors the telecommunications industry for Market Dynamics in Bethesda. "I haven't heard many people complaining."

But as the deadline gets closer, reality hits.

Michele Lauenroth of Glen Burnie heard from a friend that her alarm system might not work after the phone numbers change. So she called ADT Inc. last week and learned it would cost up to $55 to have her system reprogrammed. Without the change, the automatic dialer that calls ADT when someone breaks in will be unable to send out the alarm after midnight Wednesday.

Lauenroth told neighbor Robin Howell, who also said she had received no warning from the company.

Howell said her installer programmed the area code into their system last year, but now she needs to add area codes to the phone numbers ADT calls if her alarm goes off when she's not home. The company wants $25 to change the list, she said.

"Why didn't they tell us about this?" Howell said. "There may be people out there who have security systems who do not realize they may be out of luck come May 1."

ADT said that "customer communication had been sent out" about the need to reprogram, and it released a letter it sent last week in response to an inquiry from the Consumer Affairs Office in Montgomery County.

Pointing out that the company had no control over the phone system change, the letter notes that customers are warned in their contracts that they will have to pay ADT "for reprogramming necessitated by numbering or other changes."

Sending out reminders

Another alarm company, Austronic Security Systems Inc. of Columbia, said it has sent out multiple reminders to nearly 14,000 clients and is down to about 70 who still haven't had their systems fixed.

"We're fine. Glad it's almost over," said General Manager Rick Brokaw.

He said many of the systems could be reprogrammed over the phone lines. About 5,000 had to be changed with service calls, which Austronic offered at a half-off rate of $30.

Charges to consumers

Other alarm companies charge as much as $50 to reprogram system dialers. And if a unit is too old, it might have to be replaced entirely.

"It is a problem for these consumers. Apparently some companies are even charging exorbitant fees to reconfigure the [alarm] systems," said Assistant People's Counsel Theresa Czarski.

She said her office, which opposed the 10-digit dialing plan when the state Public Service Commission debated it in 1995, has fielded numerous complaints but can offer nothing but sympathy. The commission chose the policy so that phone companies can add new area codes before they run out of available telephone numbers.

It has been optional for a year, but beginning Thursday it's mandatory to dial the area code first when making all local calls -- except for 911, 311 and 411, which are unaffected. There is no extra fee for the calls, even if you accidentally dial a 1 first. If you fail to use the area code, you'll get a recorded scolding.

Irritations

The change generally entails more trouble than expense. For example:

Service teams from General Elevator have been swarming over the city to update the one-touch elevator emergency phones required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"We've been swamped. Our phones have been ringing off the hook: `Please, please send someone out here! May 1 is coming!' " District Manager Alan Romefelt said.

Older elevators with dial phones are not affected -- if you get stuck, just remember to add the area code when you call the security number.

But the newer systems are programmed to dial at the touch of a button. Romefelt stressed that building managers are responsible for making the change, but he said his workers will do so for a "slight fee."

Erol's Internet Services of McLean, Va., has posted regular Friday e-mail to its roughly 80,000 Maryland customers with instructions on how to reprogram their computers to dial 10 digits for Internet access.

"It's just a few steps, but you need to know what to do," said company President Orhan Onaran. He said the company's technical support staff has been trained to walk customers through the process.

Telemarketing companies have to reprogram all their equipment for local calls. At Custom Telemarketing Services in Columbia, a relatively small shop, that meant adjusting some 20 phones, as well as fax machines and computer modems.

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