For Md. callers today, it's area code or limbo Guide: Bell Atlantic's Linda de Kowzan helps callers to cope with 10 digits.


For the past year, Linda de Kowzan's job has been to sell the change that no one else wanted. And to think, the Bell Atlantic executive asked for it.

As Maryland becomes the first state in the nation today to adopt 10-digit dialing for local phone calls, it has been de Kowzan's task to make sure 4.5 million Marylanders know about the change beforehand.

She has spent $2 million, sent out 300,000 coloring books and millions of billing inserts, and set up a toll-free number to handle inquiries and complaints -- which, in its own twist on how the explosion of communications devices is stretching the supply of phone numbers, is not a traditional 800 number but an 888 line.

This morning, the job is all but done.

"We've done everything you've heard and everything you could think of," de Kowzan said yesterday.

The two new area codes -- 443 and 240 -- will be assigned to counties that "overlay" Maryland's current 410 and 301 area codes. If a customer's number now starts with 410, a neighbor could have a 443 number by late this year, when 410 numbers are expected to run out. In the counties with 301, in Western Maryland and metropolitan Washington, a neighbor could have a 240 line by early next year, Bell Atlantic spokesman Michel Daley said. But anyone with a 410 or 301 number can keep it.

"Beginning in 1998, it's very possible that you could have two different area codes on different devices in the same home," Bell Atlantic-Maryland President Sherry F. Bellamy said.

Few people are thrilled about the change. It means that a wide range of devices consumers hardly ever think about have to be reprogrammed, from burglar alarm systems that dial up an alarm company to speed-dialers for customers who strain to remember seven digits, let alone 10.

Especially put off were long-distance companies like AT&T; Corp. and MCI Communications Corp., which plan to get into the local phone service business Bell Atlantic has long monopolized in Maryland. They feared that their customers would get stuck with all the "overlay" phone numbers and would decide to stay with Bell Atlantic so they could keep the familiar 410 and 301.

De Kowzan, a public affairs manager for Bell Atlantic, volunteered for the job of teaching customers about the change.

The plan began last May, when inserts went into 2.1 million Maryland phone bills. Soon after came the first round of direct mail to business accounts. Then through most of the summer and last fall, de Kowzan lobbied state officials to help with efforts to reach the people Bell Atlantic feared would have the hardest time with the change.

Bell Atlantic enlisted state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick's help in nudging local superintendents to make sure coloring books with places to record "new" phone numbers got distributed in grades K-3, hoping to teach kids Mom and Dad's new work numbers before they got flustered. De Kowzan also worked with the Maryland Department of Aging to get literature into senior citizens centers statewide, and marshaled company employees to visit the centers and staff booths at events like the Senior Olympics.

Special-needs constituencies such as blind and hearing-impaired customers got special attention. Notices aired on a radio network that reads to blind people and advertisements were placed in the student paper at Gallaudet University in Washington, which serves mostly hearing-impaired students, to make sure deaf customers knew to reprogram the devices that let them use the phone.

"We just wanted to make sure," de Kowzan said. "We wanted to make sure as many people knew as possible, but especially those who have problems."

It's been all but impossible for months to drive on a Baltimore-area highway without seeing billboards talking -- mostly joking -- about the change, and the company also peppered the radio airwaves and newspaper pages with ads created by Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, op-ed pieces and just about everything else.

A company contractor has also had a toll-free number for the past year, initially staffed by four people, to answer consumer questions about the change. De Kowzan said the hot line initially handled 300 calls a week, but its staff has swelled to a dozen as calls have picked up to 1,500 a week, a boost spurred by a blanket voice-mail message Bell Atlantic sent to customers who use its AnswerCall messaging service.

The signs are that people have already noticed. Bellamy said Bell Atlantic's research shows 93 percent of consumers, and 94 percent of business customers, know the dialing change is coming today.

The estimated 6 or 7 percent of Marylanders who don't know about the change, plus the forgetful multitudes who know about it but aren't in the habit, will meet Bell Atlantic's latest tape-recording today, telling them to go back and do it right.

De Kowzan says she has no idea how many times the tape will play, but the early line says early and often.

"Human nature is, people aren't going to use it until they absolutely have to," she said. "But with the awareness levels as high as they are, I'm optimistic and hoping for the best. It's the only way I can be."

Making the switch

Here are some services or devices that probably need programming to prepare for today's statewide switch to 10-digit local dialing:

Home burglar alarms

Computer modems

Call forwarding

Call blocking

Priority call

Pager notification on voice

Speed dialing

Cellular phones

Fax machines

Elevator emergency phones

Building access systems


Pub Date: 5/01/97

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad