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New area codes spur phone system woes

The explosion of new phone lines and new area codes is increasingly leading to temporary failures in high-tech systems designed to automate our phone calls.

Old software and new telephone area codes don't mix.

The explosion of new telephone lines in the United States and the snowballing number of new area codes is increasingly leading to temporary failures in the high-tech systems designed to automate and manage our telephone calls.

If software for office phone systems isn't updated as new area codes are introduced, office workers have found themselves unable to dial out to large portions of the United States. Similarly, pre-programmed numbers on fax machines, speed dialers, or computer modems can fail to connect if an area code has changed.

"There are a lot of little things that people need to pay attention to," said Jeremy Story, a spokesman for US West. He said US West, like other phone companies, receives calls from customers complaining about their inability to connect to new numbers.

These problems are temporary, and are usually fixed by manually updating phone system software. But the situation has nevertheless led to the increasing phenomenon of users being unable to complete ordinary telephone calls.

New lines, new problems
Twenty-five new area codes have gone into service or are scheduled to go into service this year, according to the North American Numbering Plan Administration. Accelerating demand for fax lines, pagers, wireless phones, and second home phone lines is driving the changes, companies say.

In California alone, the number of new phone lines served by Pacific Bell grew by more than 4 percent last year, from 17.4 million to more than 18 million. That doesn't include the tens of thousands of wireless phone numbers, pager numbers, or business lines served by the dozens of smaller Pacific Bell competitors.

For the most part, the number changes don't interfere with most ordinary phone calls. Phone companies in each area generally conduct media campaigns advertising their plans to change area codes, and then provide 6-month grace periods during which both new and old phone numbers work.

The changes do require substantial technical work, however. For each area code change, every telephone company in the world has to update software that routes calls to reflect the new numbers, or calls won't go through. This is done routinely, and without much mishap on the part of the large companies.

But the software for business PBX call center software also has to be updated, largely by hand. Lucent, a leading vendor of phone hardware and software, says it's not their responsibility to keep customers up to date once software has been installed.

"We don't upgrade the software every time an area code changes," said Rich Larris, a spokesman for Lucent Technologies. "The managers in each company plugs in the new area codes themselves. It's that simple."

If this update isn't done on time, however, callers behind Lucent or other PBX technology find themselves unable to call numbers using the new area code--as if the numbers didn't exist.

The big phone companies say they get a steady stream of complaints from people who don't know that they or their companies need to update their own calling, faxing, or speed dialing software to keep up with new area codes.

"We do get calls from some customers," said Dave Johnson, a spokesman for AT&T.

The company generally explains that it's not an AT&T problem, and tells callers to investigate their own systems, he said. "There are a number of things that can happen."