Ten Little Digits

Longer Phone Numbers: Explosion Of Services Forcing Change In Way Marylanders Dial.

April 28, 1997

SHOCK, DENIAL, ANGER and resolution are the stages of coping with loss. Whoever thought we would endure them for the seven-digit telephone number?

Many of us are well past denial over the plan by Bell Atlantic-Maryland that takes effect Thursday: All local calls will require 10-digit dialing -- the area code plus the local number. But resolution will arrive eventually, as it did years ago after the state was split into 301 and 410 area codes, and as a few generations ago when phone numbers were switched from letter exchanges, such as ROgers 4 or LExington 9, to numerals because of growing demand.

The explosion of telephone-linked services that people have come to count on -- fax machines, computer modems, burglar alarms, not to mention mobile phones -- has increased the burden for additional number combinations. Some people, we among them, suggested assigning these different area codes to newer uses, such as car phones, but such a plan was shot down by federal regulators as discriminatory against those services.

The 10-digit scenario sounds nightmarish with neighbors across the street -- or even two phones in the same house -- assigned different area codes. But after a shakeout period, it might not seem so onerous.

Undoubtedly, a change in thinking is needed. The area code is no longer solely about area. It will take time to get used to remembering 10 digits rather than 7, but it helps that the first three numbers in Maryland will always be either 410, 443, 301 or 240. Plus, there's "speed dialing" for those willing -- and financially able -- to pay for it. Parents and teachers will have to help children re-learn their phone numbers.

This year is the 120th anniversary of the first telephone line in Baltimore City, from an electrical shop downtown to a residence in Highlandtown. A couple years later came the first "switching" system, capable of handling 55 lines. Switchboards in corner drugstores followed. In the greater scheme, three more phone digits is not a huge price for progress.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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