ComView by David N. Townsend


Communications in

by David N. Townsend


December 31, 1997
More Confusion in the Name of Competition

Does anyone have our number anymore?

The regulator of telephone service in my state, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, has done me the great service of compelling the launching of this column, what I'm calling ComView, by the dawn of the New Year.

You see, I need to tell everyone out there about the NEW AREA CODE to place before my telephone numbers. That's right, my office telephone numbers are now:

1-781-477-9356 (tel)
1-781-593-4707 (fax)

Until today, the 781 was 617. Actually, the 781 has been in effect for 3 months, but the 617 has been retained, to allow customers time to inform their friends and associates, change their stationery and business cards, and generally procrastinate in dealing with the fact that their most basic identifying link with the outside world is about to change.

This morning marks the cold splash in the face, when we can imagine thousands of telephone calls to homes and businesses in large sections of Massachusetts will be met with that chalkboard-scraping electronic screech, followed by the most despised female voice in the country: "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed..."

[Note: Actually, I've since been informed that the transition date has been moved to February 1st, but why ruin a good story?]

At this point, the collective denial will quickly transform into collective rage, as the missed connections and lost business begin to reveal themselves. Numerous times in the past few weeks, I've been in stores and offices where all the company materials still identify the telephone number as starting with 617. I've given my own number when asked, and watched as the attendant wrote down "617-477..." I've said, "actually, it should be 781," and they've responded, "yeah, whatever..."

When the chaos hits, do you know who will be blamed? The phone company, that's who. You know, Ma Bell, AT&T. No, wait, AT&T broke up more than a decade ago (most people have probably figured that out by now). It's New England Telephone that's responsible. No, that's not right, either; they changed the name to NYNEX, eliminating NET, a few years back.

But wait a minute, the bill now says "Bell Atlantic". Who's that? What happened to NYNEX? Oh, yeah, I heard something on TV about a merger or something. It sounded like Darth Vader telling us that the Empire had taken over the phone company.

So, it's Bell Atlantic's fault, isn't it? They bought out NYNEX, and decided to change everybody's telephone number at the same time. Does this have anything to do with all the "competition" that's supposed to be happening in the telephone business? Did they change our phone numbers so that all those insufferable tele-marketers from AT&T and MCI won't be able to call and beg us to change our service? No, wait, that's long distance. Except aren't AT&T and MCI trying to get into local service? And isn't Bell Atlantic asking to get into long distance?

Can't I just have my telephone number back?

Well, if Bell Atlantic/NYNEX or AT&T or even Bill Gates get blamed for the confusion that is about to reign in the Massachusetts telephone market, I certainly won't feel sorry for them. But if anyone wants to locate the true culprit, in this case it's not the industry, it's the regulator. And to be blunt about it, it's the lemming mentality throughout public policy circles these days which proclaims that something called "competition" is the Holy Grail in pursuit of which we must sacrifice all comforts and conveniences of the past.

Quite simply, the Massachusetts DPU responded to the impending depletion of available 7-digit telephone numbers within the existing Eastern Mass area codes by chosing to split those areas geographically, and introduce two new codes. Why are telephone numbers running out? For the obvious reasons: more basic telephone service, more cellular phones, more Internet access, more fax lines, and, of course, the competition that's on the way in all of the above.

The DPU refused to pursue the alternative response (proposed by the industry) of a so-called "overlay" numbering system, in which new services, such as cellular and Internet, and services provided by competitors, would be assigned new area codes within the same geographic region, without changes to existing numbers. The reasons cited were that such a system would place new entrants at a "competitive disadvantage" relative to the incumbent, Bell Atlantic (which, of course, was NYNEX, at the time, etc.). I think there was some mention about customer "confusion," too.

Of course, in numerous countries undergoing rapid network and market development around the world, the phenomenon of different numbering conventions for different services and networks is perfectly familiar. It is more than common to find a separate numbering system for cellular services, for example, than for landline service, as well as different access codes for different carriers in the same region. In fact, I would argue that such as system even enhances the prospects for competition, because it clearly distinguishes the different players, and allows them to differentiate themselves.

But the fact is that most telephone customers don't care about competition anyway. For large businesses, marginal price competition from an oligopoly does offer certain advantages, but for the vast majority of consumers, the breakup of AT&T itself was just the beginning of a long string of increasingly complex hassles in what used to be a simple facet of life.

A typical residential customer now subscribes separately to basic telephone service, basic cellular service, a long distance carrier for the home phone, another long distance carrier for the cellular phone (or at least a separate bill), an Internet access or on-line service, cable television service, and a gasoline credit card that offers telephone calling card privileges for every 10 gallon fill-up when combined with the coupon in this Sunday's newpaper.

This, however, is not confusing enough to satisfy the regulators, so they pursue ever more competition.

As a result, those of us in the new 781 area code must now cope with the following dialing requirements:

By the way, if you want to call me on my cellular phone, forget everything I just said. It turns out that area codes aren't changing for cell phones, since they don't really know where you are, anyway. So my cellular number remains 617-840-9124, even if I put it down right next to my other telephones, and assure them that they are all equal in my sight. It would have stayed 617 even if I subscribed to "competitor" Bell Atlantic/NYNEX's cellular service, which Darth Vader informs me is far superior to the Rebel Alliance cellular system, and will "bring order to the galaxy..."

Did you ever wonder if maybe the Empire wasn't such a bad idea, after all?

David N. Townsend & Associates

Telecommunications Economics, Policy, Regulation

Services Projects Reports Resources Contact

David N. Townsend & Associates
17 Lawrence Road
Swampscott, MA 01907 USA
tel: 1-781-477-9356   fax: 1-781-593-4707


1997 David N. Townsend