Perspective

Fortnightly Magazine - June 1 2000
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The telephone numbering system is out of control, and regulators can't fix the problem.

The mushrooming of new area codes affects nearly every telephone user in this country. In some regions, the number of digits that must be dialed is increasing too. Seven, 10, 11 digits - how many numbers can consumers be asked to remember?

Area codes are being discussed on editorial pages, around boardrooms and dinner tables, and, thankfully, at state regulatory commissions. The controversy even was the subject of a 1998 "Seinfeld" episode, in which Elaine feared she would "never be able to date again" because no one would believe that the 646 area code she had been assigned actually represented a Manhattan resident. Her fears, though fictional, were mirrored in a recent column of the Wall Street Journal, which compared receiving a number in a new area code to relocating to another planet.

In short, consumers across the country are fed up. Maine is fighting to keep its single area code, which has more than enough numbers to support residents from Kittery to Caribou. At the other end of the spectrum, California has over 25 area codes, with three new ones scheduled for phase in this year. In response, bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress on a bipartisan basis that call upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop an efficient plan for numbering by the end of this year.

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