Friday, October 17, 2008

PSC Halts 315 Area Code Changes For Now, But Denies PULP Petition for More Aggressive Telephone Number Conservation and Reclamation

At its October 15th Agenda Meeting, the PSC decided PULP's Petition in the 315 Area Code Proceeding. See PULP Asks PSC to Reconsider Refusal to Investigate Alternative to New Area Code in 315.

Late last year, the Commission requested public input on how it should resolve the telephone exchange “shortage” in the 315 Numbering Plan Area (“NPA”); that is, the perceived lack of "NXXs" as in "315-NXX-XXXX." The NXX is the exchange code portion of a telephone number and identifies to which community the NXX and its corresponding 10,000 telephone numbers have been assigned.

In response, PULP provided several filings over the ensuing months -- not addressing the narrow question posed by the PSC, whether a split or an overlay area code was the best way to ensure that the central part of the state doesn't run out of telephone numbers, but rather, stepping back to look at the larger picture -- whether any area code relief was necessary at all for a mostly rural area with about 1.4 million residents:
Also, the legislature began to review the PSC's number utilization practices. See Bill Would Require PSC to More Closely Scrutinize Telephone Area Code Changes.

We remain convinced the impending "shortage" was due to the numbering allocation practices of the Commission and that if it altered these procedures, and reclaimed improvidently issued numbers to localities that did not need them, area code changes could be staved off for the foreseeable future, not just in 315, but all across upstate New York.

In the not-too-distant past, telephone numbers were given out to telephone companies 10,000 at a time (as in NXX-0000 through NXX-9999) in each exchange area, such as Syracuse or Star Lake, and could only be used in that rate center. Once local telephone competition arrived, allocating telephone numbers this way to multiple smaller competitive phone companies resulted in numerous numbers being stranded; that is, they were stuck in one rate center that didn't need them. Fortunately, "thousands block pooling" was implemented so that up to 10 different companies could share the same 10,000 number NXX code. This proved to be an inexpensive way to get the most out of existing numbering resources and reduces (and very nearly eliminates) stranded telephone numbers.

With this background, it is easy to understand why PULP was concerned that the PSC in the past five years had intentionally allocated upwards of five full NXX codes with 10,000 numbers each to over 50 rural exchanges in the 315 NPA with populations under 5,000 that had historically been served by a single NXX code. This artificially raised the rate of depletion of NXX codes in the 315 NPA, which eventually triggered the area code relief proceeding. Since only a handful of actual customers could possibly be using any of the scores of thousands of new telephone numbers in these small, rural areas, PULP suggested that inconvenience to more than a million customers in the 315 could be avoided if these NXX codes could be emptied, returned and be reallocated into other exchanges as needed. Not only is this a sensible, rational suggestion, PULP believes it is supported by the FCC's regulations.

So, what did the Commission do at its October Agenda Meeting?

The Commission denied PULP's Petition because it believes it lacks legal authority to empty and reclaim slightly used NXX codes for reuse in areas where they are really needed and, even if it could, it believes it could not save enough telephone numbers to make a difference. The Chairman stated PULP’s proposal would “take the telephone numbers from people that may have had them for 15 or 20 years and say you can’t have that number anymore.” This mischaracterizes PULP’s proposal.

The carriers which have obtained these numbering resources in recent years are CLECs, many of whom then provide the numbers to VoIP providers, including the cable companies, through private agreements. As a result, they can show that their NXX code has been sufficiently used up (they make the VoIP providers look like they are the CLEC's customers). Well, since it is mathematically impossible for five carriers to allocate their 50,000 telephone numbers within an exchange with 1,000 people (remember, there is that stringent requirement on telephone companies that numbering resources must be used in the designated rate center), something else must be afoot. Is it possible that the CLECs are either not using all of the telephone numbers or are using them outside the rate center? You betcha.

Under PULP's proposal, Grandma and Grandpa, who have lived in Syracuse for 50 years, would not be asked to give up their telephone number. Neither would the local hospital or pizzeria. If there are any actual users on the NXX codes or thousands blocks in question in the designated rate centers, they might be ordered to take a new number, but this may total maybe 100 or fewer -- throughout all of 315.

On top of that, we only suggested that a small number of customers be forced to switch telephone numbers only as needed. For example, if it would take only a few NXX codes to be freed up for reallocation in order to hold off area code relief for another year, only a relative handful of customers would need to make the switch -- a minor action not affecting everyone in the 315 NPA at the same time. That may actually be all that it would take since only four new NXX codes have been assigned through the first nine months of this year and 98 NXX codes remain available in 315. Under PULP's proposal, should the amount of available NXX codes dip below 75, for example, only a few assigned NXX codes would need to be reclaimed and reallocated to keep 315 afloat. This would certainly be far less of an inconvenience than requiring all or most of the 1.4 million residents of the 315 NPA to change their numbers all at once, or convert to ten-digit dialing, which has been PULP’s concern all along. In short, the Commission grossly mischaracterized PULP’s proposal and ignored the far greater cost and disruption of the staff proposal to split the area code or create a new overlay area code.

PULP’s petitions required the Commission to reexamine the entire allocation process in 315, and to consider new evidence submitted by PULP showing that NXX code requests have slowed to a virtual stop. Only four new NXX codes were used through the first nine months of the year with 98 remaining. This is hardly a gold rush forcing immediate action – indeed, at this rate, it would be nearly 25 years before all the available NXX codes in 315 are used. Commission Staff acknowledged that there is no need to actually implement any area code relief in the 315 NPA anytime soon, and the Commission did not state whether, when that time comes, it would do a split or overlay.

Essentially this was a victory for all telephone customers in 315. Area code changes will not be required in the 315 NPA for at least several years, if ever. It may also slow down any possible area code changes in other parts of the state as well if the Commission re-examines its number allocation and reclamation processes. We all realize that the unnecessary changing of area codes is an undue burden on all citizens, businesses, and the telephone companies. Let's be glad that after holding extensive community hearings on whether to do a split or overlay, the Commission came to its senses just in time and did nothing. The PSC Order issued October 17 does say that the Commission will adopt a plan, in future proceedings in the case, probably choosing either a split or overlay solution, but acknowledges that "[i]f code demand stays low, we will not have to begin implementation of a new area code until the 315 code is closer to depletion." With 98 codes left and using only four so far this year, the residents of 315 should not face implementation for years.

PULP will consider filing a petition with the FCC requesting a declaratory ruling that the New York PSC does have power to reclaim numbers and NXX codes improvidently stranded by mistaken PSC allocation of multiple NXXs to small localities that did not really need them. With this power, the need for area code relief elsewhere – such as the 518 area, where small localities were also given multiple NXX codes in recent years – might be avoided or postponed . We would encourage the PSC to support such an effort to clarify the powers delegated to the state by the FCC.

Lou Manuta

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