Using new area codes, 'no one believes you' Numbers make taxis, pizzas harder to order

November 27, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

They have trouble ordering taxis, cashing checks and getting pizzas delivered.

They are the roughly 17,000 unlucky telephone customers with the state's newest area codes -- 443 and 240.

"The biggest problem is that no one believes you," said Kashmere Davis, 42, of Gaithersburg.

Davis said that when she needs to provide her telephone number with the 240 area code, store clerks become confused. And taxi dispatchers are blunt -- they tell her no such area code exists in Maryland.

"I tell them to call me back to check, and then I have to hang up and they call me back," she said. "That's how I get a cab."

Davis said her telephone didn't begin ringing until three weeks after she moved into her apartment this fall. Friends and relatives had tried to reach her but used the 301 area code because that was what her neighbors had.

"It's crazy," she said.

Bell Atlantic won state approval to distribute the new area codes when the company was given permission to begin 10-digit dialing in 1995. The move is necessary because of an increased demand for new phone numbers among Bell Atlantic's 2.4 million customers spawned by the proliferation of fax machines, cellular phones, computer modems and other electronic devices, said Sandra Arnette, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman.

Bell Atlantic began giving out the numbers to business and residential customers early this year. The company has so far distributed about 10,000 telephone numbers with the 443 area code and 7,000 numbers with the 240 area code, Arnette said. The 443 code is used in the 410 calling area and 240 in the 301 area, she said.

New customers are assigned the numbers and long-distance charges apply only when a caller needs to dial 1 before the area code, Arnette said.

Bell Atlantic's competitors declined to disclose how many of their customers have the new area codes, saying such information is proprietary in a competitive market.

Fewer problems expected

"It may seem like a problem now, but it'll become less of a problem as more customers get the new numbers and more people hear about them," said Joe Paluska, a spokesman for MCI WorldCom Inc.

Customers with the new numbers say few know about the new area codes now.

"It's been a nightmare," said Mark Settar, assigned 443 when he and his wife purchased a Glen Burnie condominium in April. The couple has had trouble ordering pizza deliveries from shops that require callers to give a home telephone number.

Said Irene Settar, "I've had the manager think it was a crank call and get nasty at me."

Mark Settar, a barber and hairstylist, had to print the phrase "NOT A LONG DISTANCE CALL" on his business cards so that customers at his Columbia salon, Total Concepts, would call him at home to arrange or reschedule appointments. The couple has the same phrase printed under the phone number in their church bulletin so other members will not be reluctant to call.

"If I had to do it over again, no way would I take this number," said Settar.

Old numbers dwindling

Customers will soon have no choice.

Arnette said an extremely limited number of 410 and 301 area code phone numbers are available. The only 410 numbers left are from lines that have been disconnected and are being "recycled" to new customers, she said.

Maryland survived with a single area code -- 301 -- until 1992, when the state was split in two to create the 410 area code, which was expected to settle matters until 2012.

In 1995, however, Bell Atlantic won approval from the Public Service Commission to distribute the two new area codes after reporting that the state would run out of 301 and 410 phone numbers by late last year because of the rapid increase in cell phones and other technology.

Overlays approved

The PSC also approved Bell Atlantic's proposal to "overlay" the new area codes -- 443 over the 410 area code and 240 over the 301 area code -- rather than carving out new geographic boundaries for them.

Bell Atlantic argued that combining the new and existing area codes would avoid forcing businesses to print new letterheads and business cards if they were forced into new area codes by a geographic split.

Businesses affected, too

At least two major business customers, Morgan State University and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, ran into problems anyway when they revamped their telephone systems this year and began using the new area codes.

The Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia, located on the edge of the 410 and 301 area codes, was one of the first Bell Atlantic customers to receive a new area code when it switched to a new telephone system in February.

Overall, the system worked well, said Jim Hagan, APL chief of staff.

But many of APL's business customers had internal switching systems, known as private branch exchanges (PBXs), that prevented APL customers from calling the lab with the new telephone numbers, Hagan said.

"We had customers who had to call our employees at home to make contact because they couldn't get through," Hagan said. "People were saying, 'What kind of rinky-dink operation is that, where we can't even call you up?' "

Confusion in dorms

Wiley Hall, a Morgan State spokesman, said the school went to a new telephone system in August. But some students say telephone service in the dormitories has been beset by periodic outages since the switch.

Hall said the school is continuing to work on the problem. While administration and faculty offices remain on 443 lines, some dorm phones have 443 numbers and others have been switched back to 410, Hall said.

Kevin Howell, an 18-year-old freshman from Piscataway, N.J., was without phone service for two weeks because of the problems. He now has a phone in his room with a 443 number, while many of the rooms nearby have a different area code.

"I call the dorm room right next to mine, and I have to dial 410," Howell said. "It's weird."

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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