Area Code Overlay An Ugly Option

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS —

Grand Rapids Business Journal emphatically supports the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce move to delay the Michigan Public Service Commission’s deliberation of adding an area code overlay in the 616 region. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine under what circumstances such an “option” would be acceptable.

The “overlay” option proposed to the MPSC adds a new area code within the 14-county area regarded as “616.” The result is that businesses installing a new fax machine or additional telephone line would have a second area code differing from its current 616 code: businesses would then manage two area codes within the same office. Calling to a new phone would require all callers within the 616 area to dial 11 digits, even if the call is within the same building.

The MPSC has indicated that overlays are proposed as a way for business to save money, in that business owners would not have to spend money on new letterhead, business cards and promotional materials as would be required with a new area code. The 616 customers would remain with the 616 designation.

The crux of the telecommunication problem is that the 616 area has run out of numbers given the additions of home and business fax machines, cell phones, pagers and the number of new telephone service companies coming into Michigan, which are assigned blocks of 10,000 numbers for their customers. The MPSC reports that at the current rate numbers will be used up by the fourth quarter of this year.

The continued growth of the West Michigan economy, in this case, would be considered part of the problem. Grand Rapids Business Journal asserts that is even more reason to provide a new area code — or maintain the 616 code — in the metropolitan region.

This is Michigan’s most dynamic and diversified economic region. The Grand Rapids metropolitan area is considered the “anchor of the Life Sciences Corridor,” “the hotbed” of Michigan’s IT and e-business and holds national rank for the number of new entrepreneurs in a specific area. The “choice” is the lesser of the proffered evils: whether new and expanding businesses can live in two area codes, keep all things the same within specific portions of the current 616 area or assign a new area code.

The former would add to a business owner’s “hidden” costs or losses in outright customer confusion, and they may well outweigh the cost of new letterhead (which can be a phased in cost).

The bottom line for the MPSC is to use the option that extends the longest life possible to assigned area codes.

The MPSC hearing in Grand Rapids this week was set with less than 30 days notice to area residents and businesses — not enough time to get business owners together let alone discuss the enormous ramifications of so vital an issue. But then, how long should it take to just say no?

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