The Perils of 646

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 January 2000

Has your telephone company assigned you one of those new area codes? Don’t take it. Kick and scream if you have to, make any excuse you can come up with – or be willing to accept the consequences. They’re not pretty.

One of the side-effects of the Internet and cellular phone booms has been a tremendous increase in the demand for unique telephone numbers across the United States. To increase their capacity, most big cities now have new districts with new area codes. In New York, for example, 212 filled up last year. A new area code, 646, was created, and all new telephone customers, as well as people like me who happened move from one neighborhood to another, are being assigned phone numbers with the 646 prefix.

Many New Yorkers protested, fearing a loss of status if they were to accept the new number. To them, 212 means New York City. Others complained that they would now have to dial an extra four digits – 1-212– in order to reach friends and associates who lived just next door.

I chose just to accept the new area code and the minor inconvenience. As an advocate of telecommunications, I figured I should grin and bear the consequences of an increasingly wired world. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my new area code would make my phone unreachable to thousands, perhaps millions of people worldwide. That’s right: the new area codes just don’t work.

I can call out just fine. So far, thanks to Bell Atlantic - my local carrier - my phone can reach every area code I’ve attempted to dial. Receiving phone calls, alas, is another matter.

It all became clear to me when I took a vacation over New Year’s. I was down in the British Virgin Islands, enjoying the sun and surf, when I decided to check my message machine back in New York. Before I could even finish dialing my 646 area code, a computerized voice told me I had mis-dialed. I called the operator immediately, who informed me that, according to the British Islands telephone company (Cable and Wireless), no such area code as 646 existed. I called my mother, who then called my machine for me, and transcribed my messages.

A minor inconvenience, I told myself, figuring that the Caribbean could be expected to lag a bit on telecommunications upgrades.

But last month, a reporter from the public television station in Virginia sent me an email to let me know my phone number did not work. Then, last week, a friend in upstate New York told me that her telephone company – Berkshire Telephone – was unable to connect a call to 646, as well. Just today, I learned I’m also unreachable from San Diego.

Bell Atlantic says there’s nothing they can do, even though I pay them for my line. According to them, my telephone charges are for outgoing calls only. My line access does not include the privilege of receiving calls. That’s up to the caller’s phone company.

So why can’t my telephone be reached? It turns out that area codes are administered by private corporations – a former branch of Lockheed-Martin called NeuStar creates the codes, and a former Bell company now called Telcordia Traffic Routing Administration is supposed to publish them in a database known as the Local Exchange Resource Guide.

All local telephone companies must use Telcordia’s guide to update their systems at regular intervals. Apparently, phone companies are so busy with their own new area codes that they are forgetting to list anybody else’s. Either that, or they want to save money by updating less frequently. Or maybe they’re just incompetent. Several of the phone company executives I spoke with were so new to their industry that did not even know it was their responsibility to update their own systems. After reading this column, you know more about how area codes work than they do.

Where does this all leave me? Ultimately, with a phone that rings a hell of a lot less. And maybe that’s not so terrible after all.