Monday, December 08, 2008

ALJ Recommends “Overlay” Telephone Area Code Requiring 11-Digit Dialing, Despite Plentiful Numbers and Exchange Codes in Central New York’s 315 Area

On November 26th, a New York PSC Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) made a recommendation that the PSC require telephone companies to begin preparing for an “overlay” to the 315 area code in central New York. An overlay is a second area code that follows the same geographic boundaries as the original code. All existing customers would keep their telephone numbers with the 315 area code, but new numbers assigned could bear the new overlay area code.

The catch: all people in both area codes would need to dial at least 11 digits (1-315-NXX-1234 or 1-NEW-NXX-1234), instead of just 7 digits (NXX-1234), to make a local call.

The ALJ's Recommended Decision rejected the other option posed by the PSC Staff -- a geographic split -- which would have divided the 315 territory in two parts. Customers in one part would keep the 315 area code, while customers in the other part would have a new area code and thus would be required to change the area code portion of their telephone numbers. Within each area, people would continue to have seven-digit dialing for local calls.

The ALJ recommended that “[t]he Commission should require Frontier, Verizon, and other incumbent and competing local exchange carriers to begin preparing plans for introducing the new area code on a timely basis.”

The need for a new area code, however, is not nearly as dire as the Judge’s words suggest.

The facts developed in the record by PULP confirm that there is no reason to require the telephone companies providing service in the 315 area code to take immediate steps to implement a new area code now or in the foreseeable future. In the relatively short period of time which has elapsed since this proceeding commenced (December 20, 2007), the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (“NANPA”) has pushed back the exhaust date for the 315 area code three times -- from the third quarter of 2010, to the first quarter of 2011, and to the first quarter of 2012.

In addition, according to the NANPA data, only four exchange codes (the 3-digit number after the area code) were requested in the 315 area code for the first 10 months of 2008, and 97 exchange codes still remain. In contrast, in 2006 and 2007, exchange codes were being utilized (unnecessarily) at a much higher rate. At the current pace, which slowed when the PSC stopped giving numbers out 10,000 at a time in rural areas, it may be more than 20 years before the steps contemplated by the ALJ need to be taken. For further background of the proceeding and the change in the way numbers are used see
To implement either a new area code overlay or a geographic split would require substantial and premature financial and resource commitments by the telephone companies, the cost of which ultimately would be passed on to customers. It would also inconvenience customers by requiring them to begin 11-digit dialing for local calls years, perhaps even decades, before it is actually necessary. The ALJ's Recommended Decision, if approved and adopted by the PSC, would require telephone companies to begin implementation of a new overlay area code. The PSC, however, in its October 17, 2008 Order Denying Public Utility Law Project Petition for Rehearing and Clarification, recognized that
If code demand stays low, we will not have to begin implementation of a new area code until the 315 code is closer to depletion.
The Recommended Decision, however, states that "the Commission should require Frontier, Verizon, and other incumbent and competing local exchange carriers to begin preparing plans for introducing the new area code on a timely basis." This suggests immediate action and expenses when they may not really be needed.

On December 16th, all parties will have the opportunity to file comments in opposition to the ALJ’s Recommended Decision to the Commission. Then, active parties will have until December 31, 2008 to file reply comments. The Commission is expected to take a final decision in the spring of 2009.

In previous decisions regarding area code relief, the Commission has recognized the enormous burden that area code change has on residential customers and businesses, and that it should not be done unless absolutely necessary. The Commission’s previous policies under which telephone numbers were assigned were wasteful, and promoted the premature exhaustion of exchange codes in the 315 area code. After PULP’s criticism of these policies and involvement in this proceeding, legislative action to require evidentiary proceedings on the need for a new area code, and a change in the way new numbers are issued, the rate of requests for exchange codes in the 315 area slowed to a crawl. Now that this has occurred, there is no need for hasty action, especially action that may be needless and which will adversely impact the phone companies, residential customers and businesses.

Lou Manuta

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