In recent years, exploding demand for phone numbers has pushed the classic Manhattan 212 area code to its limits, our desire for mobility requiring new area codes for cell phones so that we can be reached anywhere, anytime. Enter 917, 646 and 347 - and the era of 10-digit dialing.
Normally, in places where more than one area code is used for the same geographic area, the Federal Communications Commission requires that callers dial area codes for local calls. So, if the FCC has its way, you will now have to dial 212 to call your next-door neighbor in Manhattan. Ten-digit dialing will also require telephone systems to be reprogrammed, including emergency 911 computers and private security systems.
It is that fact that the government of New York and an array of state agencies are using in a petition to delay 10-digit dialing here for another 14 months. Reprogramming errors, they say, could lead to problems with emergency services, which would be undesirable in this uncertain time for New York.
More generally, New York believes that 10-digit dialing is costly, complicated and unnecessary. Senior citizens, children, sight-impaired and other New Yorkers with disabilities may face challenges adopting to the new system. 10-digit dialing would require a huge consumer education campaign to educate people about how to make calls with the new system and updating phone books to reflect the changes.
The FCC counters that 10-digit dialing is one way to promote competition in telecommunications markets, which is one of their priorities. Forcing people to dial area codes only for new numbers, the FCC argues, is unfair discrimination against new telecommunication companies. For example, currently, you have to dial the area codes for 646, 917 and 347 but not for 212 or 718 (if you are calling from within these area codes). The FCC says that this amounts to an anti-competitive practice designed to keep the established phone companies in control of the 212 and 718 numbers.
In response, New York agencies have introduced a series of policies that they hope will foster competition in the telecommunications market without the hassle of 10-digit dialing. These programs include telephone number portability (you can take your phone number with you when you move) and telephone number pooling (numbers no longer in use with be redistributed equally to all telecommunications companies).
It is not clear whether New York's request for delay of 10-digit dialing is really a response to the World Trade Center attacks, or merely an excuse for New York to put off the implementation of a federal plan that it has resisted since the beginning. While New York telecommunication companies do have costly challenges ahead in rebuilding infrastructure damaged in the attacks, there may not be sufficient reason to delay 10-digit calling. There has been much sympathy from Washington following the attacks, however, the FCC may prefer to get back to business as usual as so many are trying to do in these difficult times.
In the end, New Yorkers will have to adopt the federally mandated 10-digit dialing plan in the next few years. That is, unless there are some creative legal tactics that New York has not tried yet. So, get out your digits.
Next Month: Cable Crisis
Thank you. Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.