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VoIP firm tussles with states over phone numbers

Dispute between regulators and SBC IP Communications highlights an endangered species: the 10-digit number.

A dispute between SBC IP Communications and state utility agencies over how to distribute phone numbers promises to shape regulations that are key to the future of the fledgling Net telephony industry.

SBC IP Communications, a subsidiary of SBC, wants to sidestep the usual procedures and get telephone numbers directly from the North American Numbering Plan Administration, without first obtaining a state telephone operator's license.

Last month, SBC IP asked the Federal Communications Commission for a temporary waiver of the licensing requirement.

Without an unfettered supply of phone numbers from NANPA, SBC IP argues, it and other carriers' rollouts of Net phone service will be hampered. NANPA is the organization that maintains the comprehensive telephone-numbering plan for the United States, its territories, Canada and the Caribbean.

Several state regulators have since vigorously objected to SBC IP's plan, saying the licensing process is necessary to keep carriers from gobbling up the dwindling supply of phone numbers assigned to North America. They told the FCC earlier this week that NANPA isn't required to enforce federal or state telephone number conservation measures.

That task is left to the states, which impose restrictions on carriers as part of the licensing process. Federal agencies estimate that the United States, Canada, Guam, Bermuda and Trinidad will run out of 10-digit numbers, which include area codes, by 2025.

"The lack of certification will frustrate (our) ability to directly enforce any number of conservation requirements," the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio told the FCC in a statement. "By requiring state certification, the Ohio commission and FCC are able to ensure that numbers are assigned to carriers only when the carrier has made a commitment to serve and the company is authorized to operate."

The struggle strikes at one of the most overlooked but most important issues facing providers of voice over Internet Protocol, the technology for making calls over broadband connections that's threatening to roil the traditional phone industry. Without 10-digit numbers, VoIP customers would have no way of receiving calls from the 94 percent of the U.S. homes and offices still relying on more traditional forms of telephony.

In general, VoIP providers avoid getting state licenses because of the costs involved. In addition to what can be expensive fees, maintaining a license usually requires carriers to employ full-time staffers to keep track of changes in federal and state reporting requirements.

But without a license, SBC IP is forced to ask for phone numbers from other carriers, which often grant such requests only if certain requirements are met, such as buying millions of minutes of airtime. While SBC IP could, and likely does, get a good portion of its numbers from parent SBC, the Bell operating company's supply of phone numbers is limited to the area SBC serves. A truly national Net phone service would require millions of phone numbers SBC couldn't supply, the carrier's subsidiary argues.

"By receiving numbers directly (from NANPA), SBI IP can...overcome availability and scalability limitations," the company told the FCC.

AT&T has joined states in opposing the request, saying a waiver would give SBC IP an unfair advantage. Dealing with licensed providers is an "important role in ensuring that finite numbering resources are used efficiently," the carrier told the FCC.

The FCC is expected to soon rule on SBC IP's request.