Country Could Run Out of Area Codes in 10 Years : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Regulators Try to Stem Rapid Demand for Area Codes

1:10 P.m. ET (1810 GMT) March 17, 2000

WASHINGTON  The explosion of cell phones, pagers and fax machines  along with a monopoly era system for allotting digits  is endangering one of the most basic forms of personal information: the telephone number. Federal regulators today tried to fix the problem.

The country could run out of area codes within the next eight to 10 years, requiring callers to punch in more numbers than they do now.

The Federal Communications Commission today adopted rules that would allow states to more efficiently allocate and manage phone numbers, such as taking back numbers that carriers are holding but not using.

The FCC also voted to change the system so that numbers can be allocated in blocks of 1,000  instead of 10,000  to carriers. Under the existing system, created before there was competition in the phone market, competing local carriers acquire a block of 10,000 numbers for every billing region they wish to serve. An area code may cover dozens or hundreds of such regions.

If a carrier has only 100 customers in a given region, the remaining 9,900 numbers of the block are tied up.

"It is high time that we revamp this 50-year-old numbering process," said FCC Chairman Bill Kennard.

Some states have successfully implemented other methods of allocating numbers. Illinois, for example, has been conducting trials of giving out blocks of 1,000 numbers.

In Maine, regulators were told by the administrators of the numbering plan two years ago that they would have to add another area code. But when the state examined the situation more closely, it discovered that there were 3 million numbers that had been assigned to carriers that were not being used.

The FCC let the state institute measures that included requiring carriers to use at least 75 percent of their number block or be within six months of running out of their numbers before they can ask for more.

"We're not trying to keep people from numbers they need," said Trina Bragdon, staff attorney with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. But the state wants to make sure the need is there before allotting numbers.

Since May, the commission has granted ten states temporary authority to implement measures to conserve phone numbers. The FCC also has been looking at steps to ensure that carriers are asking for numbers based on actual usage rather than projected need.

The numbering system, which also covers Canada and the Caribbean, began with 84 area codes being assigned in 1947. Sixty-four codes were gradually added through 1994, according to the North American Numbering Plan Administration, which oversees the system.

But then the number of area codes being assigned rapidly increased, adding 23 in 1996, 44 in 1997, 28 in 1998 and 42 in 1999.

The advent of competition in the local phone market, as well as the popularity of new services like wireless, have contributed to the pressure on the numbering system.

"All of that demand is racing in and that puts us in the unique position we're in today," said John Manning, senior technical liaison for the numbering administration.

Regulators say they want to minimize disruptions to consumers and businesses. Each area code change forces people to learn new dialing patterns, and many must upgrade equipment and reprint business cards, stationery and advertising. Alarm companies also must reprogram auto-dialing equipment.

Federal regulators will continue to review some proposals that would require a more extensive overhaul  like charging carriers for the numbers or adding digits to the numbering system  that could be implemented in the future.

-- Jen Bunker (, March 20, 2000

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