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Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday soon Western New York's venerable area code will need a young assistant.

The supply of available numbers in 716 is predicted to run out in 2001, although some experts say the supply could be extended.

To prepare for the digit dearth, the state Public Service Commission has started the process to adopt a new code sometime this year, leaving phone companies time to implement the switch before the last phone number is gone. A series of public hearings around the state will be held throughout the year.

"The 716 area code that has served Western New York . . . since the 1950s is running out of assignable telephone numbers," said an October report by the PSC staff.

That makes 2000 the year for wrestling with a number of choices, none of them pleasant. Should 716 split into two or even three new territories? Should it adopt an "overlay" code that only applies to newly issued numbers, mixing the new code throughout the 13-county 716 area?

But perhaps the most important question is whether policy changes could stave off the new prefix indefinitely by bringing unused numbers back into circulation.

"We all know about the problems for residents and businesses that are brought on by an area code change, particularly the additional costs and confusion," said Tom Tarapacki, Buffalo director of telecommunications, in a letter to the PSC.

"For an area like Buffalo that has experienced some serious economic setbacks in recent years, it would be a very real hardship."

Of the 8 million available numbers in 716, only about 800,000 remained unassigned as of Sept. 30. But another 2.7 million reserved numbers aren't in use because of the bulk process for allocating numbers, according to the PSC.

The area code system, called the North American Numbering Plan, is administered by Neustar Inc., formerly the Lockheed Martin Communication Industry Services division. Under the plan, phone numbers are allocated to communications companies in blocks of 10,000 for their customers. The applicant doesn't get just one number, but all numbers available in an exchange -- the first three digits of a seven-digit phone number.

Although an explosion of phone lines for fax machines and Internet connections are cited for the digit depletion, even more important has been an upsurge in telecommunications providers. Whenever an independent local phone company needs numbers to service new customers, it is allocated not a handful or a few hundred, but all 10,000 in a block.

The practice explains why about one in four phone numbers in 716 are reserved but unused.

Tarapacki and others seeking to forestall the need for a new area code advocate number "pooling," the practice of reducing the blocks of numbers to 1,000.

Although it sounds simple, the idea comes with knotty administrative difficulties. The telephone billing system is based on the practice of one company owning all the numbers in a given exchange -- the exchange code is also used as a sort of billing code. So for pooling to work, thousands of telecommunications services around the country would need to add a fourth digit to their billing code, in order to keep track of where calls originate.

How long could a better system extend the pool of numbers in 716?

"It's very difficult to put a meaningful estimate on that," said Dennis Wax, director of regulatory affairs for Bell Atlantic. The number pooling experiment was approved only in September. There's still no firm idea where the unused numbers are -- Bell Atlantic isn't hoarding them, Wax says.

In the meantime, the region will have to decide whether a split or overlay will be the solution to the eventual exhaustion of phone numbers.

Either option isn't likely to be pleasant for consumers and businesses. An overlay code will mean having to dial 10 digits for local calls, while a split will abruptly change at least half the phone numbers in 716 to a new prefix.

Of the two options, Bell Atlantic says a split is the less wrenching.

"We've been through this before," Wax said. In a split, "there's no end to the complaints that come in."

The strongest argument for an overlay, he said, is that the country will be going to 10-digit dialing anyway within 10 years. To combat the depletion of area codes, changes in the call routing system will make it necessary to dial the area code even for calls across the street, Wax said. Area codes are projected to run out in 2007.

But officials in both Buffalo and Rochester -- the other contender to keep the 716 code -- say they prefer a split. An overlay dilutes regional identity with one area code and is slower to be recognized by callers and telecommunications companies.

Whatever the choice, phone users will have several months to get used to the idea, a period called "permissive dialing" when calls to the old code will go through anyway, Wax said. Typically, it's only after the permissive period ends that callers start using the new code.

Looking ahead, Tarapacki has put in a bid to make 283 the eventual new area code -- the digits spell BUF on the telephone keypad.

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