MN - Area Code Switch Glitches Yield Excessively High Phone Bills : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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Area code switch glitches yield excessively high phone bills

Steve Alexander Star Tribune Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Glitches in creating new Twin Cities area codes 763 and 952 have resulted in the overbilling of thousands of long-distance customers.

About 18,000 Sprint residential customers with a total of 19,000 individual telephone lines were affected in March and April, according to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). An undetermined number of MCI Worldcom and AT&T customers also may have been affected.

The PUC traced the billing glitches to the area code change because the billing errors began about a month after the Twin Cities' West Metro began an 11-month period of "permissive dialing" in February. During permissive dialing, either the new area codes or the old 612 code will work. On Jan. 14, only the new codes will work.

The 763 and 952 area codes serve the west-northwest and the west-southwest portions of the Twin Cities, respectively. Interstate Hwy. 394 is the rough dividing line.

The new codes have been added in the Twin Cities, as new codes have be added nationwide, because of the need for additional phone numbers for new local telephone competitors, pagers, wireless phones, computers, fax machines and second telephone lines.

Sprint blamed the billing glitch on an error in its software, which was unable to correctly convert telephone numbers in the affected regions to the new 763 or 952 codes.

Richard Goulet, Sprint's director of consumer operations in Kansas City, Mo., said Sprint's software mistakenly read an order to change a telephone number's area code as an order to add a second telephone line to a house. In addition, software erroneously replaced the existing customer accounts with the orders for second lines, in effect creating new customer accounts. The new accounts were then assigned to generic rate plans rather than the plans those customers had chosen.

Goulet said Sprint found out about the problem in March, when customers started to complain. Customers were given credits on their bills and returned to their original calling plans.

"We think we've got it fixed. We made billing adjustments in the April-May timeframe," Goulet said.

Both MCI Worldcom and AT&T promised to find out what impact the area code change has had on their customers, but neither had responded to a reporter's inquiries by Tuesday evening.

But it appears that some MCI Worldcom glitches haven't been resolved. An Edina resident and Star Tribune employee last week said he called MCI Worldcom after discovering he had been switched to a higher-priced calling plan without his knowledge. An MCI Worldcom representative told him the code change caused the problem. Edina is in the new 952 area code.

The PUC got involved in response to consumer complaints.

"We had a handful of complaints from AT&T, MCI Worldcom and Sprint customers," said Tracy Smetana, a PUC consumer mediator. "They were all the same issue: The area code changed and the person got bumped off his or her rate plan. The same thing has happened in other states where there were area code changes."

Goulet said the code change affected Twin Cities Sprint customers because US West used a new technology called a "line-level area code split" to create the two new area codes. That technique requires that thousands of telephone numbers be switched one at a time to the new code. It was those thousands of change orders that Sprint's software didn't handle properly, he said.

US West, which provides local telephone service to most of the Twin Cities, said it had to use the new technology along the boundaries of the new area codes in order to meet the PUC's requirement that area codes conform to city borders where possible. Normally the telephone network is managed by large geographic areas of the Twin Cities that don't match city borders, said Bryce Hallowell, a spokesman for Denver-based US West.

Hallowell said the fault for such area code-related errors clearly lies with the long-distance companies, not with US West.

"We notified all the long-distance carriers about the area code change back in February. At that point the long-distance carriers had to make changes to their billing records," Hallowell said.

-- (, June 21, 2000

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