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Perspective

Fortnightly Magazine - June 1 2000

customers a carrier intends to serve, that carrier still receives a block of 10,000 numbers. The end result is millions of unused numbers and the imposition of new area codes.

Constructive Engagement in Illinois

The Illinois Commerce Commission is leading the battle to eliminate the inefficient use of numbering resources in the state through innovative steps mandating the sensible use of numbers. Commission rulings require carriers in Chicago's five area codes to pool their numbering resources, using blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000. Further, the commission prevents hoarding of numbers in more desirable, familiar area codes by requiring carriers to turn in unused numbers that they do not plan to use in the near term.

Through these steps and others, the Illinois Commerce Commission, with the assistance of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board, extended the life of Chicago's five area codes by more than 32 months. Significant, additional extensions are expected as these number conservation measures continue to take effect. These actions are clear examples of the benefits that inure to consumers through cooperation between government and the private sector.

The FCC took another positive step toward national numbering conservation at a recent FCC meeting, when the agency granted states the right to use many of the number conservation policies pioneered in Illinois in the mid- to late-1990s. The FCC's decision was a sensible move that underscores that local issues such as area code assignment must be dealt with jointly by state and federal officials.

Ultimately, however, regulatory bodies such as the Illinois Commerce Commission and the FCC are fighting a losing battle against area code proliferation. While competition in the local exchange market and such technological innovations as the Internet, wireless phones, fax machines, and pagers have brought untold benefits to society, these same developments are bringing the demise of the old numbering system absent deeper systematic changes.

But Only the Industry Can Effect Real Solutions

The reality is that there will be no progress with regard to these numbering issues until the telecommunications industry takes action. In the long term, true solutions to these problems lie in the widespread deployment of technologies such as number portability, which allows a user to keep one telephone number despite switching local service providers or using both wireless and traditional landline technology. Yet despite the existence of such technology, the telecom industry that alone is capable of bringing solutions continues to use the flawed, old numbering system.

As state public utility regulators, we have heard and responded to calls from legislators, consumers, and industry for less government interference in the market. In exchange for such regulatory forbearance, however, the market must take responsibility for such matters as the numbering crisis. Much like the development of self-imposed ratings systems created by the entertainment industry for its products, telecommunications service providers should engage in number conservation techniques without government mandates. After all, it is the telecom companies that, in their pursuit of new markets and ever-higher profits, contribute to numbering problems. Yet their customers, American consumers, are the ones burdened with the inconvenience and confusion arising