Other countries avoid area code proliferation


THERE'S nothing rotten in the state of Denmark -- or England, Israel or Italy -- but one cannot say the same of the states serviced by Bell Atlantic Corp. Saying they are running out of phone numbers, Bell Atlantic and the other Baby Bells have caused citizens and businesses multimillion dollar losses by piling on new area codes. And judging from the evidence, the day is not far off when people will have to dial the number 1 plus their own area code just to call their next-door neighbor. These are ideas that reek of rot.

Other countries, however, perhaps easily predicting years ago that cell phones, pagers and fax machines inevitably would drain the pool of available phone numbers, have done what is unthinkable to Bell Atlantic.

What unspeakable un-Bell Atlantic thing did such nations as England, Israel, Scotland, Italy do? They sensibly assigned to cell phones (and often pagers) their own area codes. Whether it was pre-planned strategy or coincidental serendipity, the results are the same: Millions of phone numbers were thus freed for businesses and homes.

The separate area code for cell phones also allows callers to automatically know if they're calling a wireless phone or a land-line phone.

In Maryland, Bell Atlantic's odious area code additions have already resulted in area codes of 410 and 301, with 443 recently introduced.

The growth in area codes will not be abating soon. Why? Because, as a cellular phone company executive recently confirmed for me, there are about 58 million cell phones nationwide. The 2.5 million cellular phones and pagers in use in the Chicago area were originally thought to be all that would exist in the entire nation by now.

Worse news: Now the projections are for 100 million cell phones and pagers nationwide by the year 2000. Given a finite number of telephone numbers for a given area code, where will we find new numbers? Answers: 1) We're going to get overlaid and over-coded to death, or 2) we'll finally force phone companies -- both "landline" and mobile/wireless -- to create separate area codes for cell phones and pagers, just as other major countries have already done.

Proving that British sensibilities (read: common-sense) are still strong, HM Commercial Consul James Halley, the British consul in Chicago, confirmed that "cell-net phones in the United Kingdom -- England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales -- have their own separate area code." These cell-net area codes do not apply to any particular city.

As a result, each city (and its suburbs) has one area code. Densely populated greater London is the only exception.

A code of their own

Similarly, Israel has a separate area code for cell phones, said Bob Schwartz, director of public affairs at Israel's Midwest consulate. Israel's population is slightly more than Maryland's, but the Israelis planned for the future and assigned a separate area code for all cell phones.

Italy, too, has proven progressive on this point. Italy's Vice Consul Claudia Martinello in Chicago notes that all cell phones in Italy have a separate area code not related to any particular city.

Denmark, according to Richard Pape, president of Tele Denmark USA, doesn't have area codes as such. But no matter which competing cell-phone provider you choose in Denmark, Mr. Pape notes that Danish mobile phones have a two-digit prefix which is different from any home or office phone.

Ron Wilson, Midwest regional manager of France Telecom, says "customers in France must first dial 6 before calling mobile phones." It's the same for pagers, he added.

Not every foreign country has given separate area codes to cell phones. Jacques Sarrazin, a vice president for Stentor, an alliance of the nine major phone companies in Canada, says Canada is part of world zone 1, which includes the United States. That's why you don't need to dial a separate country code when calling Toronto or Vancouver.

Hence, despite a wide discussion, Canada adhered to the U.S. system of not assigning separate area codes to cell phones, pagers and faxes, Mr. Sarrazin said.

Poor Canada. We not only send them acid rain, we rain upon them the worst of our corporate thinking.

On the other hand, despite being vast in territory, Canada's population of 28.5 million is only slightly more than one-tenth of this country's. They can, for now, afford to adhere to a system which has proven disastrous south of their border -- and modify it later.

Cellular people

Maybe we should stop speaking ill only of Bell Atlantic, and save some of our spleen for the cellular phone companies. After all, they haven't employed their considerable resources to oppose Bell Atlantic's plan, and it's their customers who are now hogging 58,000,000 phone numbers nationwide.

There's enough blame to go around, even if there aren't enough land telephone numbers. But the solution is literally in our hands.

All we have to do is use those hands to dial our legislators.


Charles Chi Halevi writes from Chicago.

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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