Cell phones, fax machines and pagers are dialing through the country's supply of phone numbers.
The Federal Communications Commission, aware of the dwindling supply of 10-digit phone numbers and complaints from customers forced to change numbers, has already given telecom carriers a November deadline for allowing cell phone customers to keep their phone numbers if they switch service providers.
But carriers have balked at the cost, which they put at $1 billion for the industry, and the FCC has already granted several deadline extensions to allow the carriers to make more pressing changes.
The FCC is due to vote any time on a petition from Verizon Wireless that the FCC drop the plan entirely or exempt Verizon from the program. Other carriers have filed papers supporting Verizon's petition.
But proponents of the plan, who say keeping your phone number is a customer benefit that could increase competition among carriers by making it easier to switch, say Verizon and other carriers should not be granted further delays. Carriers say the industry is already competitive, with a high number of customers switching carriers even though they don't have the option of keeping their numbers.
Although the carriers and the FCC have focused on the cost and competitiveness aspects of the debate, some backers say there's another reason to allow people to hold on to the same number: The pool of 10-digit phone numbers is shrinking.
"Some say the end is coming sooner rather than later," said Frank Colaco, a senior area code relief planner for the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA), which distributes phone numbers in North America.
Quest for more numbers
New U.S. government reports estimate that the United States, Canada, Guam, Bermuda and Trinidad will run out of 10-digit numbers by the year 2025.
"You remember Y2K? That was big. This will be big."
--Frank Colaco, senior area code relief planner, NANPA
In the United States, most major cities have already gone through several area code additions, aggravating customers forced to change letterhead, business cards and billing records. And for some, simply losing the cachet of a particular area code, such as 212 for Manhattan, was enough to raise their hackles. The 310 area code in Los Angeles, as well as Raleigh, N.C.'s 919, are both expected to be exhausted by next year. New Mexico's 505, the state's only area code, will run out by 2004.
The idea that the carriers could run out of numbers is tempered by the knowledge that carriers hold huge blocks of area codes in reserve and that there are working plans to improve technology such as the merging of Internet and telephone technologies to reduce the number of phone numbers needed to connect digital devices.
But one industry organization has already drawn up a plan for a 12-digit future. Eight years in the making, a report by the Alliance For Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) proposes adding an extra number to every new area code and dialing prefix. Instead of a telephone number like 415-555-1212, the number would be 4151-5555-1212.
Only half as many telephone numbers are left for North America as were once available.
Number of area codes available for North America: 660
Number of area codes already in use: 300
Number of telephone numbers in any area code: approximately 7.9 million each
Number of prefixes per area code: 800, but only 792 are usable
Number of usable phone numbers for every prefix: 10,000
Adding the two digits would create a well of 640 billion more telephone numbers. But telephone companies would need at least 10 years of work to make the appropriate changes, according to the report.
"Anything that relies on a telephone number would have to be changed to accept the additional digits," Colaco said. "You remember Y2K? That was big. This will be big."
History has shown that even smaller changes to telephone numbers have caused problems for carriers. Several years ago area codes changed to include something other than a 1 or 0 as the second digit. Some companies discovered much of their equipment was hard coded to read only a 1 or 0 in that part of a telephone number, so they needed to buy new phone networks.
But others say simply conserving the existing numbers is the best tactic. The industry should continue to keep using conservation measures that have been in place since 1998, such as rationing telephone numbers, said Lori Messing, director of numbering issues for telephone lobbyists the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
To this end, the FCC has stepped in and told telecommunication carriers they won't be able to buy telephone numbers in blocks of 10,000 anymore. Instead, it will be blocks of 1,000. Messing said the industry supports the effort.
"Anytime you have a report developed for eight years by the industry, people are going to take it seriously and look at it," Messing said of the ATIS report. "But we're in no danger of exhaust at this point."
She said it would be better to rely on NANPA, which gets reports every six months from state public utility commissions and carriers about how many telephone numbers they need and have used. If an area code appears to be in danger of running out, NANPA becomes just like the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It takes charge and can, for example, "reclaim" unused phone numbers from carriers or lower the number of area codes it is willing to provide.