Change Rules Not Codes Regulators Urged
GRAND RAPIDS — Changing the way telephone numbers are reserved for telecommunications providers is the preferred solution to the shortage of phone numbers across Michigan, rather than creating new area codes every few years, state regulators and business advocates say.
Federal rules now require the setting aside of blocks of 10,000 phone numbers at a time for providers of services such as telephone, wireless telephone and paging. Believing many of those numbers go unused, the Michigan Public Service Commission would like to see the amount of numbers tied up in blocks reduced to 1,000.
Tim Eagle, an attorney for the Grand Rapids law firm Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett, called the current reserve system a “squandering” of phone numbers that needs changing.
“Telephone numbers are a resource, indeed a public service,” Eagle told the Michigan Public Service Commission last week during a public hearing on a proposal to add a new area code in West Michigan.
The hearing generated attention to the practice of reserving blocks of 10,000 telephone numbers for service providers and the need to change it. Eagle, for one, suggested that if the rule were changed, the Public Service Commission wouldn’t have to consider a new area code for West Michigan as a way to create thousands of new telephone numbers.
“It may find this is a situation that doesn’t merit area code relief,” Eagle said.
The need for new area codes nationwide is largely driven by the rapid growth in the use of fax machines, cell phones, pagers and computer modems that typically require their own phone numbers.
Rather than implement new area codes, Rusty Merchant of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce urged the commission to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to change the pooling rules.
Merchant, the chamber’s vice president for public policy and government affairs, cited testimony to the Public Service Commission last year from Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, who suggested that as many as 5 million telephone numbers in his county were held in reserve and going unused.
“The question of the day seems to be, how many numbers are out there that are just not being used? How many companies have received blocks of 10,000 numbers and have used a very small portion of them?” Merchant said.
Public service commissioners agreed on the need to change the federal rules and sought the support of business representatives and state lawmakers attending last week’s hearing.
“We think, in many cases, that’s too many numbers to be handed out,” Commissioner Bob Nelson said of the present 10,000-block rule.
While the commission is optimistic the FCC will eventually change the rule, that doesn’t alter the need to create a new area code in West Michigan, where the present 616 code will be out of available telephone prefixes by the end of the year.
During last week’s hearing, representatives from the telecommunications industry favored adding a new code as an overlay.
Under an overlay, every phone customer within the existing 616 service region requesting a new telephone number would receive the new area code. The overlay would require everybody to dial 10 numbers for a local call, and 11 digits to make a long-distance call.
Business advocates and three West Michigan lawmakers opposed the overlay proposal, saying it will cause confusion by creating situations where businesses adding phone lines would have two different area codes within the same building. Opponents also worried about the cost businesses would have to incur to upgrade telecommunications equipment and software to allow for the additional dialing.
“While an overlay may be easier for telephone companies to implement, I believe it’s anti-consumer,” State Rep. Jerry Kooiman said.
Kooiman and others called on the MPSC to split the 616 region into two geographic areas, with one keeping the existing area code and the other receiving a new code.
Industry representatives, however, said that an overlay is faster and easier to implement. Under an overlay, existing customers would retain the existing 616 area code.
Overlays have been implemented in several communities nationwide without problems, said Cassie Yang, area manager for Ameritech. People would also adapt quickly to dialing additional numbers, just as they did years ago when telephone numbers went from five to seven digits, Yang said.
“The times have changed and we have to move on. This is the next step in that evolution,” Yang said.
An overlay also avoids the pitting of one community against another when a new area code is implemented based on geography, said Kelly Fennell, Ameritech’s director of regulatory affairs.
“In a (geographic) split, some will win and some will lose,” Fennell said.
If it chooses to reject an overlay, as it has done twice in the past year with previous proposals elsewhere, the Public Service Commission will have to choose who gets a new area code and who gets to keep 616.
Alternative plans submitted to the MPSC include varying proposals to keep the 616 area code in the northern reaches of the present service region, while the southern area around Kalamazoo would receive a new code.
Whether choosing an overlay or deciding who gets to keep 616, “There is going to be some type of unpopular decision made,” commission chairwoman Laura Chappelle said.