Painlessly Creating New Codes

Just 10 days before two new area codes were to become effective in eastern Massachusetts, the state legislature in August added 10 towns to the existing 617 area code. The ensuing media coverage dominated the airwaves and headlines for weeks.

Fortunately the governor vetoed the bill that would have created chaos by threatening the availability of critically needed new numbers.

A similar uproar took place in Atlanta in 1995 where "rescuing" communities from new codes shortened the shelf-life of the new 770 from five to just two years. Having learned its lesson, Georgia has joined a growing number of other states, including Maryland, New York, and Colorado, in using a new, relatively painless method to create numbers. That new system, known as a "geographic overlay," allows existing customers to keep their area codes.

Orders for new services in faster growing communities running out of phone exchanges (the three-digit prefix to your seven-digit number) are assigned the new area codes.

The overlay is a sensible alternative to the traditional method of creating new area codes.

When your local phone company needs new exchange codes in your community, it doesn't split your town in half. It simply superimposes another exchange over the existing geography.

The overlay applies the same principle to the existing geography of an area code.

Residence customers are spared the confusion of learning new boundaries, and businesses avoid the expense of reprinting stationery, signs, and advertising.

The one "negative" of an overlay is that is requires dialing more than seven numbers. But area code overlays last longer than splits. That's because the overlay retains a wider geographic area and new numbers are phased in only when and where needed.

* Jack Hoey is New England director of media relations for Bell Atlantic.

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