A Numbers Game

February 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — State regulators are weighing a plan to add a new area code to West Michigan that would require your fingers to do a little more dialing.

A proposal filed last month with the Michigan Public Service Commission would require all callers within the 616 area code to dial 10 digits to make a call — no matter where they’re calling. Under the plan, phone companies would issue a new area code to customers requesting a new telephone number anywhere within the existing 616 code that covers West Michigan.

While such a plan, known as an overlay, has not been previously implemented in Michigan, it was proposed twice before. The MPSC in both of those cases decided against the overlay, citing public opposition among its reasons.

“There was significant opposition from the public and businesses,” MPSC spokeswoman Mary Jo Kunkle said.

The MPSC has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for 1:30 p.m. March 19 in the Grand Rapids City Commission chambers, on the ninth floor of City Hall at 300 Monroe Ave.

In the previous cases where overlays were proposed, MPSC last year instead ordered new area codes based on geographic boundaries. In addition to public opposition, the commission felt that overlays proposed for the 810 area code in Macomb County and the 517 code in the Saginaw area would not produce enough new phone numbers far enough into the future, Kunkle said.

“The commission clearly wants to look at something that would provide the longest life possible” for area codes, she said. “This is something where we recognize there are certain adjustments on the part of the public and businesses.”

The proposal filed with the MPSC includes alternative plans that offer varying overlay plans, all well as a new area code based on geographic boundaries. The present 616 area code covers all or part of 14 counties in the southwestern Lower Peninsula.

The need for new area codes nationwide is driven by the growing prevalence of technology in everyday life at home and at work. Fax machines, cell phones, pagers and computer modems all typically receive their own phone numbers.

The entrance of new local telephone service providers, which are assigned blocks of 10,000 numbers for their customers, also stretches the present system, Kunkle said.

“All of those are gobbling up a number of the numbers,” Kunkle said.

At the current rate, the 616 area code will run out of new phone numbers by the fourth quarter of this year, according to an MPSC filing on the proposal.

The logic behind overlays is that existing phone customers would not have their area code changed, alleviating the need for businesses to change letterhead, business cards and promotional materials. Everybody within the existing code, however, would have to dial 10 digits for all calls when the new code is added.

“If you’re a 616 customer, you would remain a 616 customer,” said Frank Colaco, a senior area code relief specialist with NeuStar Inc., the Washington, D.C., firm that administers number plans in North America for the telecommunications industry.

“It’s almost transparent to them, except they have to dial the new code to get to their friends and family in the same area,” Colaco said.

A geographic split, meanwhile, enables half the customers within the existing code to keep their existing numbers and only dial seven digits within the code. The problem with geographic splits, however, is those areas ultimately will need splitting again as the demand for new phone numbers grows.

“The geographic areas can only get so small,” Colaco said. “They’re continually getting chopped up smaller.”

Ameritech, the state’s largest local telephone company with 500,000 customers alone in the 616 area code, remains neutral on the debate between overlays and geographic splits as a way to generate new phone numbers.

While the company worries about the potential for confusion and inconvenience among customers whenever an area code is changed, Ameritech will accept what the MPSC decides, spokesman Mike Barnhart said.

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