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Central Mississippi prepares for March dialing deadline

On March 14, a 769-overlay area code will be added to Central Mississippi, requiring consumers to dial 10 numbers locally instead of seven. News of the change has area businesses buzzing, especially those with automatic dialing systems, from telemarketing firms to medical offices calling patients for appointment reminders.

“Fortunately, we put in a 10-digit number from the beginning, so it won’t affect us at all,” said Cully Torrence, sales director for Global Sector Services Inc., a full-service security company based in Jackson. “Our central monitoring office is in Greenville and we have to put them in there anyway. Right now, we have a lot of questions about it.”

The Mississippi Public Service Commission approved the new 769-area code/overlay plan last March.

“Last July, consumers could begin dialing 601 even if they were making a call across the street, to get accustomed to dialing the extra digits,” said BellSouth Mississippi spokesperson Mike Walker.

When Entergy Mississippi learned about the pending change, the utility company began reprogramming its systems that use area codes to recognize the 769 number and implement 10-digit numbers where necessary, said company spokesperson Robert Lesley.

“We don’t anticipate any problems because we took care of that last summer,” he said.

Theoretically, an area code could house 10 million seven-digit phone numbers, but some numbers are not available, like prefixes beginning with 0 or 1, or 911. As a result, each area code is reduced to having fewer than eight million usable numbers.

According to the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District, the area population reported in 2000 was 574,990. In the last five years, cell phone usage has exploded. Factor in the increasing use of pagers, multiple business lines, and separate residential lines for children, and the numbers add up.

“We are quite simply running out of numbers,” said Walker. “Even though they’re not all used up yet, blocks of numbers are reserved for businesses such as emergency services. Others have had service disconnected but the number must stay in our database for a certain length of time before it can be re-issued.”

An overlay plan introduces a new area code by applying it onto a geographic area already occupied by an existing area code. Prior to the introduction of overlay plans in the late 1990s, one area code was assigned to a geographic area. For example, the entire state of Washington originally had a 206 area code; today, 206 applies only to the Seattle metro area.

“Many major metropolitan areas have implemented overlay plans and now have multiple area codes because they have grown so much in population and cell phone use has exploded,” said Walker. “In Atlanta, 10-digit dialing has been required for quite some time.”

In 1996, the same year that legislation enacted competition for local telephone customers, Congress gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) jurisdiction over telephone number administration. The FCC delegated to the states the authority to determine when, and in what form, to introduce new area codes, which can be added either by a geographic split or by an overlay plan.

The North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA), an advisory body that administers, assigns and manages U.S. area codes, counsels the FCC on number administration issues. AT&T and Bell Laboratories designed the North American Numbering Plan in 1947.

“NANPA assigns us the area codes and prefixes, so it’s not a BellSouth issue, it’s an industry issue,” Walker pointed out. “Many cell phone users, for example, are already dialing 10 digits. This simply takes it to the next level.”

Many consumers prefer area codes to be designated by a geographic split because the constant 10-digit dialing for local calls is highly inconvenient.

“I haven’t received any calls from customers who are upset with the change,” said Walker. “That might change after March 14 because customers are still dialing their regular calling pattern. We just want them to know that when they wake up March 14, they’ll need to dial extra digits.”

All 601 numbers will be assigned until exhausted, but even though that process may take months, mandatory 10-digit dialing will be effective March 14.

“Anybody with numbers programmed into speed dial or some other system coming into their phone or database needs to update them now,” cautioned Walker.

Speculation about mandatory 15-digit dialing being required within the next few years “is very premature,” said Walker.

“I haven’t heard anything about that yet,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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