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fcclogo Consumer Advisory

Office of Public Affairs, Public Service Division,
The Portals, 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554
202-418-0200 / TTY 202-418-2555

June 1999

FCC Chairman William E. Kennard
Responds to Consumers' Area Code Questions

Here at the FCC we are hearing questions about the telephone area code system from all over the country. In order to answer those questions and prevent confusion, I have launched this Area Code Information Campaign. I hope that the various parts of this campaign increase your knowledge of area code issues and help prepare for any area code changes. A key part of this Consumer Advisory is our list of "Frequently Asked Questions." This page provides common sense answers to questions regarding your telephone service.

Consumers enjoy telecommunications choices that Alexander Graham Bell never dreamed of. Even as recently as ten years ago, most consumers had one home telephone number. That is changing. A growing number of consumers now have two or more numbers - they can be reached by wireless telephone, pager, or by fax. A small but growing number of consumers and businesses have a choice of local telephone companies. The growth of competition in telecommunications markets has increased the demand for telephone numbers - a resource with limits. Last month, the FCC began a formal investigation to find the most economical way to conserve number resources.

Today's challenge in area code conservation has its roots in history. AT&T designed the area code system over fifty years ago, when only one telephone company needed numbers, and households and businesses required only a small fraction of the available numbers. Calls were routed to switches based on three digit area codes and the first three digits of the seven digit local phone number. That system worked well for many years.

The area code system which historically worked so well is beginning to show its age. A system that once had plenty of growing room is reaching its limits. Demand for telephone numbers is rising rapidly due to the modern conveniences of wireless telephones, fax machines, dedicated computer lines, and pagers. But this is not the main reason that many new area codes have recently been introduced. The main reason is competition. New telephone companies need numbers to provide service. The good news is that many new telephone companies are seeking to compete.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the doors for local competition. Competitors need to have telephone numbers available before they can go into business. Wireless companies and pager companies also need numbers before they can do business. When a company requests a supply of telephone numbers, it receives a large inventory. Because of the design of our telephone system of switches and exchanges, the smallest inventory, or "block", is currently 10,000 numbers. Clearly, if many companies request numbers, an area code can be spoken for very quickly even while many numbers go unused.

Because area code exhaust is occurring throughout the country, a national approach is needed to improve the efficiency of the numbering system. What can be done? The FCC began to lay the groundwork for a solution soon after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 went into effect. Local number portability, which is growing in availability, will allow numbers to be transferred from one company to another in much smaller blocks, and will allow us to tap into the large supply of unused numbers that are currently tied up in telephone company inventories. The local number portability solution, known as number pooling, appears to be very promising. The FCC is asking the public - including states, the industry, consumer groups, business and residential customers - for input on this solution, as well as other solutions that have been suggested. The final decision on the most economical solution will take all public input into consideration.

The area code challenge is "built-in" to our system of switches and exchanges. Any solution will require some re-tooling, therefore will not happen overnight. The FCC, working as quickly as possible in cooperation with states, industry, and consumers, will dramatically improve the efficiency of our numbering system, and stem the tide of area code changes.

Additional information on area codes is available on the North American Numbering Plan Administrator web site.

For more information on area code issues, contact the FCC Call Center toll free at 1-888-CALL-FCC or visit the FCC's web site at http://www.fcc.gov.
TTY: 1-888-835-5322.