Opposition Led To Area Code Split

May 29, 2002
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LANSING — Strong opposition, including an orchestrated letter-writing campaign that generated more than 200 responses from Grand Rapids-area businesses, helped to convince state regulators to impose a new area code for West Michigan based on geographic boundaries.

The decision last week by the Michigan Public Service Commission means that the area to the south of Grand Rapids, including Kalamazoo and Allegan counties, will receive a new area code next year, while Kent and Ottawa counties get to keep the 616 area code they’ve had for 52 years.

In opting to split the existing 616 area in half, the Public Service Commission rejected a proposal from the telecommunications industry to implement an “overlay” that was resoundingly opposed by business and consumer advocates.

An overlay would have given every telephone customer within the existing 616 area a new code to use for any new telephone line they requested. Opponents of the overlay plan, including the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, contended it would have caused too much confusion among customers who are long accustomed to the traditional system of linking area codes to geographic regions. An overlay also would have required people to dial 11 or 10 digits when making a call, no matter where they were calling.

“Ultimately, we made enough noise and we made the right arguments,” said Rusty Merchant, vice president for public policy and government relations at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber orchestrated a local letter-writing campaign against the overlay plan that generated more than 200 letters from 80 area businesses.

The MPSC, in opting for a geographic split of the 616 code rather than an overlay, stated that it is a relatively large area, covering 16 counties, and has not been split into the smallest practical area, although the original area established in 1949 was split from Muskegon north to Traverse City in 1999.

The commission also cited “overwhelming” opposition to an overlay by a majority of the parties commenting on the proposal.

Telecommunications providers were directed to begin implementing the new area code no later than July 13, 2002, through permissive dialing, with mandatory dialing beginning Feb. 15, 2003. Wireless telephone customers were provided a permissive dialing period through Feb. 15, 2004.

Ameritech and Verizon North, the main local telephone service providers in the 616 area, were given 30 days to file plans detailing how they will implement the new code and educate consumers about it.

Ameritech and Verizon North had advocated in favor of an overlay, viewing it as the most convenient way to generate new telephone exchanges.

“Our interest is in customer convenience and lack of confusion. In this case, the customers made it clear to the Michigan Public Service Commission that a geographic split will be less confusing and that’s what we’ll implement,” Ameritech spokesman Mike Barnhart 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.

Seeing that growth continuing, the Public Service Commission last week also backed efforts to change federal regulations that it says are contributing to the rapid use of telephone exchanges. 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 that many of those numbers go unused, the MPSC would like to see the amount of numbers tied up in blocks reduced to 1,000 as a way to conserve phone numbers.

Business groups have backed the same initiative.

“This isn’t the end of things. This is the beginning,” Merchant said.

The state House last week, meanwhile, supported the MPSC’s call for reducing the number of phone numbers set aside from 10,000 to 1,000.

“The present practice leaves thousands of numbers stranded and unused,” state Rep. Jerry Kooiman, R-Grand Rapids, said. “We could avoid much of the headache, hassle and expense with better allocation of available telephone numbers.”

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