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'Overlay' plan to add 2 area codes criticized RTC


The state People's Counsel's office urged the Public Service Commission yesterday to reject a plan that would give Maryland two new area codes and bring about the demise of the seven-digit phone call.

Teresa Czarski, speaking for the office that represents the interests of Maryland's residential ratepayers, told the PSC that an "overlay" scheme that would add two new area codes on top of the existing 301 and 410 would be confusing and cumbersome for telephone customers.

With the state's supply of telephone numbers expected to run out in late 1997 because of explosive growth in the use or cellular phones, pagers, modems and fax machines, the commission is facing a choice of the lesser of two evils as it seeks a way to add two new area codes to the existing 301 and 410.

An overlay would require 10-digit dialing of all local calls; a geographical split would further subdivide a state that was united in a single area code until three years ago.

Ms. Czarski said the consumers she had talked to expressed a strong preference for the geographical split, which would let them continue to make at least some seven-digit local calls.

"It's familiar to them and they know what to expect," said Ms. Czarski, deputy to People's Counsel Michael Travieso.

However, she did not endorse a controversial map, produced by an industry group under the leadership of Bell Atlantic, showing how the state might be carved into four area codes. The geographical split option sent to the PSC would put Baltimore and Baltimore County in separate area codes and split Montgomery County.

Ms. Czarski urged the commission to send its staff or Bell Atlantic back to the drawing board to come up with a new map that would be more in keeping with Maryland's traditional regions.

The People's Counsel's testimony came on a day that was otherwise dominated by the clash of rival telecommunications companies -- each trying to persuade the commissioners that the plan that best serves its interests is in the public interest as well.

Lined up on the side of the overlay were Bell Atlantic Corp., supported by the state's two cellular providers (one of which it co-owns) and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

In the other camp were Bell Atlantic's potential rivals in the local telephone business -- AT&T; Corp., MCI Communications Corp., Sprint Corp., MFS Communications Co., Teleport Communications Group, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., Comcast Corp. and the state's trade association for cable TV operators.

Proponents of an overlay pressed the argument that it would require no current telephone customer to change numbers because of a new area code. They contended that a geographical split would be a quick fix that would have to be repeated several years down the road, where a third overlay area code can easily be piled on a second.

"We believe at some point in the not-too-distant future, 10-digit dialing will be inevitable," said Keith Davis, vice president of Cellular One's Washington-Baltimore affiliate, which is owned by SBC Communications, the former Southwestern Bell Corp.

But representatives of Bell Atlantic's potential competitors questioned whether that future need be all that close. They contended that seven-digit dialing can continue for many more years.

Kenneth Prohoniak, testifying for Sprint Corp., said that even the largest advantage of an overlay "pales in comparison to the lost public value of seven-digit dialing."

Mr. Prohoniak and other Bell Atlantic rivals charged that the overlay plan was an attempt by the incumbent telephone monopoly to seize an advantage over potential competitors by forcing them into a "funny-looking" new area code while it had access to a vast store of desirable 301 and 410 numbers.

If the commission approves an overlay, Mr. Prohoniak said, "You have effectively stifled local competition in Maryland before it gets started."

Paul Kouroupas, Teleport's director of regulatory affairs, gave the example of a company with 100 Centrex lines that wants to diversify its communications providers when it adds another 100 lines.

If its 100 Bell Atlantic lines are on a 410 area code and a new competitor can only offer it lines with an unfamiliar new area code, that would be an unfair disincentive to using another carrier, Mr. Kouroupas said.

John Dillon, Bell Atlantic-Maryland's director of government affairs, said suspicions that his company was seeking a competitive advantage were "unfounded."

"We simply are not warehousing numbers," Mr. Dillon said.

The new PSC chairman, W. Russell Frisby, was openly disdainful of the geographical split option presented to the commission and asked each opponent of an overlay whether they could propose an alternative map.

Each of the opponents gave virtually the same answer: that Bell Atlantic was the custodian of all the information that went into drawing the map. Several suggested that the commission instruct its staff to prepare an alternative map of a geographical split.

Outside the hearing room, Bell Atlantic opponents suggested that the map presented to the commission was deliberately drawn in a way that would make the geographical split option unattractive.

"They might have known they were in favor of an overlay when they drew that map," said Ross L. Baker, AT&T;'s government relations director for Maryland. "Bell Atlantic drew that map, clearly. If it was not them it was their information that guided the lines."

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