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10-digit local calls on the way

January 25, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

Time is about to run out on the seven-digit local telephone call in Maryland.

The actual date is May 1. That's when all calls made in the state will require the bulkier 10-digit combination of the traditional telephone number plus the area code. Anyone trying a seven-digit call will get a recorded message announcing the mistake.

"Isn't that a pain?" said Yvonne Thomson, a real estate broker with ReMax Achievers in Hagerstown. Thomson said her work relies heavily in making local phone calls to clients and others.

"I'm sure it will complicate life more," she said.

Numbers running out

But Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said the new dialing is "not as bad as it sounds" and people should quickly become accustomed to it after the initial change.

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"I think they'll be OK. I think our customers will be fine with the transition," Arnette said.

She said the cause of the 10-digit dialing is the recent explosion in usage of telephone numbers, as people are now buying pagers, cellular phone and fax machines and adding second telephone lines to their homes.

"We're all contributing to the problem. We're exhausting the numbers," she said,

Instead of creating new geographic area codes - like what happened in 1992 when the 301 and 410 codes divided the state in half - the phone company opted for an "overlay" plan. That means there will be new area codes for the same geographic areas as 301 and 410.

New area code

Phone company officials said they will continue to assign 301 numbers until they are used up. The first numbers with the new code, 240, are expected to arrive early next year.

But because the possibility exists of local calls being between 301 and 240 numbers - and between 410 and the new 443 code in that part of the state - 10-digit dialing became unavoidable, Arnette said.

Last year, when the new area codes were announced, Bell Atlantic started a media campaign aimed at informing customers of the change.

Now, with the switch a little more than three months away, the phone company is starting another ad blitz, as well as putting out brochures and even a children's coloring book.

"We've been trying to make sure people won't get confused," Arnette said.

Hagerstown Junior College has begun putting the 301 area code on all of its new printed materials "just to get into the habit of it," said college spokeswoman Patricia Churchey.

Churchey said there will probably be some inconvenience when the 10-digit dialing takes effect, but she said it won't affect the college worse than any business or residence.

"I'm sure, just like anyone using a home phone, it's going to be cumbersome remembering all those numbers," she said.

At Washington County Hospital, employees will soon receive a memo asking them to start using the 10-digit dialing now, so they are prepared for when it becomes mandatory, said Pat Weaver, communications supervisor for the hospital.

"It's going to cause a problem in the beginning in that people are going to forget" to dial 10 numbers, Weaver said.

The hospital does have a speed dialing system to contact area physicians, which Weaver will reprogram to add the area code.

In fact, some are predicting that the new 10-digit dialing will lead to an increase of use of speed dialing systems, in which the numbers can be dialed by just pressing a couple of buttons.

Arnette said the new area codes should be able to absorb the growth of telephone numbers for the next 11 years.

Of course, the phone company had once thought the 410 code would handle growth into the next century.

"I don't think anyone on the telecommunications industry expected things to take off like they have," Arnette said.

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