With Millions of Phone Numbers Still Unused in 315 Area Code Region, PULP Urges PSC Not to Add New Area Code Now

Background
In December 2007, the New York PSC issued an order launching its move to create a new area code in what is now the 315 area code region, which encompasses Syracuse, Utica, Watertown and many smaller communities in north central New York. Adding a new area code creates a burden for consumers, whether it be done as a geographic split of the region (requiring area code prefix changes) or as an “overlay” whereby new numbers are added with a new area code, with the result that different family members in the same household might have different area codes.  In another case, the PSC summarized some of the inconveniences placed on large numbers of customers when area codes are changed. explaining that

area code changes … are a major burden on consumers. New area codes cause confusion to callers and potential safety issues when hospitals, ambulances, and public health and safety institutions are required to change their telephone numbers. The records for 911, which include telephone numbers, need to be changed when area codes change. Errors in record changes can result in serious health, safety and welfare concerns. The accuracy of telephone numbers is also a security issue. If contacts are not reachable because of outdated area codes on old contact lists, security may be compromised. Businesses suffer economic harm when their area codes are changed. They are required to advertise the new numbers, contact existing customers, and revise all stationery showing their new telephone number. They face the possibility of losing business during area code transition periods when customers use an old number.

Also, there is a finite number of usable area codes, and if the day comes when they are all used, the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) would need to be revised, to add more numbers than the current ten numbers used throughout the US and the 20 countries in the NANP, i.e., (518) NXX-1234, where NXX is the local central office code prefix.  Thus, it is important not to waste numbers.  As stated recently by the Federal Communications Commission in an order regarding numbers for cable VoIP telephony,

Telephone numbers are a valuable and limited resource; access to and use of numbers must be managed judiciously to ensure that they are available as needed and to protect the efficient and reliable operation of the telephone network.

PULP opposed the PSC’s 2007 proposal to add a new area code in 315 because only about one third of the usable numbers in 315 – 2.7 million out of 8 million – were actually used.  See PULP Network, PSC Considering “Area Code Relief” For 315 — Where Did All The Numbers Go?, March 5, 2008.  PULP urged more careful distribution of numbers and more proactive efforts to make unused numbers available in localities where they are needed, and made a motion to stop the push for a new area code and for further investigation.  See PSC Puts 315 Area Code Changes on Hold Pending Investigation, March 24, 2008.

The “need” for a new area code is driven by the improvident allocation of central office codes (the “NXX” in the telephone number (518) NXX-1234) to sparsely populated areas.  This occurred as part of the failed effort to create robust local telephone competition, when the PSC approved giving new companies numbers 10,000 at a time.  As a result, local phone centers in tiny communities that were once served by one NXX code that had ample spare numbers received multiple NXX codes with 10,000 numbers each, most of which were never used.  For example, Star Lake, population 860, got three additional NXX codes in addition to the original Verizon NXX, totaling 40,000 numbers.  There are so many numbers in Star Lake there is no room for fish.  Other areas saw even greater squandering and stranding of number resources.

The mistake of issuing large blocks of numbers to new phone companies in rural 315 areas was belatedly recognized, and in 2006 the FCC empowered the New York PSC to reduce blocks of new numbers to 1,000 in all areas, including 315, where number exhaustion was projected within five years.

Once an office code has even a few numbers in it, it cannot be easily moved to another area, and to “decontaminate” it, numbers may need to be changed.  In many instances, though, the numbers used by the competitive companies in their NXX codes are unseen shadow or “ported” numbers, with the customer retaining the original number from Verizon, so the shadow number could be shifted to an NXX that would remain in the local community, and the customer number would not need to be changed.  Also, technological advances may make it possible to free up numbers in lightly used NXX codes now stranded in rural areas. Recent advances now allow porting of old wireline numbers to wireless numbers, in the process de-linking numbers from the original NXX, and so PULP believes it may be feasible to shift some lightly used NXXs to other areas in the 315 area that need them more, with no customer inconvenience, and at lower cost when compared with the massive disruption of a unnecessary and avoidable area code overlay.

The PSC denied PULP’s motion for more investigation and an on the record technical conference to examine ways to forestall a new area code.  See PULP Network, PULP Asks PSC to Reconsider Refusal to Investigate Alternative to New Area Code in 315, May 07, 2008.

An Administrative Judge ruled that a new area code should be implemented as an overlay, and not a geographic split, as some had recommended.  See PULP Network, ALJ Recommends “Overlay” Telephone Area Code Requiring 11-Digit Dialing, Despite Plentiful Numbers and Exchange Codes in Central New York’s 315 Area, December 8, 2008.

A bill was introduced in both houses of the New York Legislature to require the PSC to take stronger steps to avoid the inconvenience of area code changes to consumers in the 315 region.  See PULP Network, Bill Would Require PSC to More Closely Scrutinize Area Code Changes, April 10, 2009.

PULP submitted further evidence regarding a change in the projected number exhaustion date.  See PULP Submits New Evidence to PSC Showing No Need for Area Code Changes Now in Central NY 315 Area, April 29, 2009

The PSC then realized that the issuance of NXX codes had slowed since commencement of the proceeding, and called off implementation of the new area code.  See PULP Network, PSC Acknowledges 315 Area Code Change is Not Needed, June 15, 2009.   The Commission cited the Great Recession as the reason for the halt.  See PULP Network, PSC Didn’t Provide Complete Explanation When it Ended its 315 Area Code Proceeding, June 19, 2009.

Revival of the Proposed New Area Code Overlay
Since the 2009 halt of plans to put in a new area code, approximately fifty net new NXX codes were issued, and earlier this year NANPA gave notice to New York that 315 was likely to need more central office codes by the first quarter of 2015.  The PSC issued an order reviving the proceeding, which had been dormant, and announced that it intended to reinitiate the proceeding to hold further hearings and to receive further comments on the ALJ’s Recommended Decision to implement a new overlay code, in the belief it “would benefit from additional information concerning changes in technology or usage patterns.”

On August 7, 2013, PULP submitted its Comments Regarding Options to Make Additional Central Office Codes Available.  Pointing out that the majority of potentially assignable numbers in 315 remain unused due to improvident distribution of NXX codes, PULP asked for a new Department of Public Staff Report or White Paper to discuss measures taken since 2009 to limit issuance of new NXX codes and reclaim unused numbers. In the absence of a White Paper, PULP issued discovery requests to Department of Public Service Staff, which are not yet answered.

PULP urged that the Commission move deliberately and that it conduct further inquiry into number conservation and reclamation measures to avoid inconveniencing households and businesses in the 315 area. There should be time to do that because no new NXX codes have been issued since October 2012.  There are still 57 NXX codes unassigned in 315, representing 570,000 more numbers available, even if there is no reclamation.

Regarding changes in technology, PULP asked for further inquiry into whether obstacles to transferring misallocated NXXs could be overcome with new technological capabilities.  PULP noted that technology similar to that used for number porting between wired and wireless numbers may have made it possible to change the location of a lightly used NXX in a rural area without changing customer numbers.  According to the Number Portability Administrative Center,

Before LNP [local number portability] was established, the NPA-NXX of a telephone number identified the state and rate center where the number was originally assigned, the service provider and the carrier type (wireline or wireless). Today, because telephone numbers have been ported between wireline and wireless service providers, the NPA-NXX of a telephone number only identifies the state and rate center where the number was originally  assigned. **** Because LNP allows a number to be moved from one switch to another, the NPA-NXX of a telephone number is no longer a reliable indicator of the serving switch and service provider’s identity.

PULP urged further inquiry whether similar technology would allow the transfer of a lightly “contaminated”  NXX from a rural location where it is not really needed to a location where it is needed, or whether there may be other technological solutions to free up numbers trapped unused in rural areas.

PULP urged the Commission to adopt the general policy of the Pennsylvania PSC to avoid new area code implementation by vigorously policing the issuance of new numbers and more aggressively seeking return of unused numbers.  PULP suggested that New York take the lead nationally by seeking added authority from the FCC to give out and reclaim numbers in blocks of less than 1,000 to improve saturation of existing NXX codes before allowing new ones in 315.

Comments on the case can be made online at the PSC online case file for Case 07-C-1486.  Papers filed in the proceeding are also at that site.

Gerald A. Norlander

Update

COMMISSION PUTS 315 AREA CODE CHANGES ON HOLD
— Revised Forecast Results in New Area Code Exhaust Date —
Nov. 14, 2013

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