There lies before us, we are told, a Golden Age of digital services to the home -- high-speed Internet, TV, telephone, video conferencing. But to deserve it we must first endure some suffering -- like the traffic jam a backhoe was creating Friday morning on a busy street downtown while gouging out a trench to lay a fiber cable.
We're going to have lower bills, more choice, better service. But in the meantime, we've got to put up with extra charges on our phone bills and mandatory 10-digit dialing for local phone calls and long-distance directory assistance that gives you an out-of-date number.
In the end, it'll be worth it, I think. We went through some similar consumer angst more than a decade ago when long-distance went competitive, and it's hard to argue that things have become anything but cheaper and better since.
Now comes a push to bring competition to local calling, a business that's still largely monopolized by the Bell telephone companies. Giving the average American home a choice about which telephone company would connect to it could be a key step toward newer and better electronic services, because companies would compete with better offerings to draw you to their fold.
Three years ago, Congress passed legislation aimed at bringing that competition about. But we've seen very little of it so far (the StarPower service that is advertising widely is a notable exception). But check your Bell Atlantic bill and you will find that you are paying 23 cents a month to underwrite the cost of creating what's known in the industry as "number portability."
The Federal Communications Commission figures that competition in local calling can't really take off if you can't take your number with you when you leave Bell Atlantic for another local phone company. Nobody will want the hassle of informing friends, employers, government agencies, etc. of a new number.
But it turns out that making this happen is a huge engineering challenge. It costs big money in systems development, just as fixing the Y2K computer bug does. So you and I are all paying to help get the job done, regardless of whether we switch companies.
And in the name of competition, people in suburban Maryland are dialing 10 digits for all their local calls, even to numbers in the same area code. While there are some advantages to 10-digit dialing in terms of freeing up new phone numbers, it would be entirely possible to continue the old system of seven digits within the same area code. But there are specific federal rules against that now, intended to promote competition in local calling.
Here's the background: Maryland, like most every other urbanized area, is running short of numbers. So Bell Atlantic is creating new area codes. There are two ways to do that. One is to carve out a geographic zone for the new number. Everyone in the new zone gets the new code. This is a costly, unpopular approach. Large numbers of people will have to reprogram burglar alarms, reprint business cards and call Mom in California to give her the new code.
The other approach is called an overlay. That's what happened in Maryland. The phone company establishes a new area code in the old code's geographical boundaries; as new lines are installed, they get numbers with the new code. No one has to change numbers.
From the commission's point of view, however, there's a potential problem with overlays. As competing companies come into the local calling market, the numbers they assign their customers will tend to have the new area code, 240. Keeping with a traditional seven-digit dialing system for local calls within the same area code would put these companies at a disadvantage.
Here's the logic (it's rather complicated). Bell Atlantic customers, who would tend to have the old 301 numbers, would dial seven digits most of the time for local calls, because most everyone they could call locally would be Bell Atlantic customers too. Customers of new companies would also be mostly calling Bell Atlantic customers, but each time they did, they'd have to dial 10 digits because those numbers had another area code.
The mandated solution: equalize the pain. Make everyone dial 10 digits. That way, the newcomer companies won't be at a disadvantage when people are mulling over which service to use.
Yet another aggravation as we switch to competition has come with long-distance directory assistance. Traditionally, when you dialed directory assistance in another city your long-distance company routed you to the local Bell company's operators. As the possibility of competition has emerged (long-distance companies want to go into local calling, and the Bells want into long distance), many of these tie-in deals have broken off. Long-distance companies have scrambled to come up with their own directory databases. But since they're not the people assigning numbers, the things can be out of date.
Aggravation, aggravation. But still -- think about it. One day, those trenches will be all filled in and paved over and there will be the best of technology in them, and one day there will be a new company calling you, offering an exciting service, possibly at much better terms than you could get from Bell Atlantic.
But wait a minute. They're probably going to call at dinner time, aren't they?
John Burgess's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.