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PSC looks at 10-digit dialing

MONTGOMERY — Dialing 10 digits for local calls may be in the future for parts of north and east Alabama.

The Public Service Commission said Tuesday the 256 area code is scheduled to run out of available phone numbers in early 2011. The commission is considering whether to add a new area code that would overlay the 256 area code, or to split the 256 region in two, with one part being served by a new area code.

The commission plans to vote March 3.

In the past, the commission has split area codes when numbers ran short. The 251 area code in southwest Alabama was created from the 334 region, and the 256 area code now under review was taken from the 205 area code.

But these days, 21 states are using overlays, including the neighboring states of Mississippi, Florida and Georgia, said Darrell Baker, director of the PSC’s Telecommunications Division.

With an overlay, the new area code would cover the same counties as the 256 area code. Customers with existing phone numbers would not have to change. The new area code would be used for new phone customers.

The telecommunications industry in Alabama has recommended an overlay.

Baker said the advantage of an overlay is that existing residential customers don’t have to notify family and friends about a change in phone number and don’t have to reprint their checks to correct their phone number. For businesses, there is no need to change stationery, advertising or checks.

“The good thing about an overlay is it doesn’t cost anybody anything,” he said.

The disadvantage is that everyone affected by an overlay has to dial 10 digits instead of seven for local phone numbers, he said.

Phone customers in the 334, 251 and 205 area codes would still dial seven digits for local numbers.

The 256 area code stretches across much of the Tennessee Valley in north Alabama and runs down the east side of the state to Gadsden, Anniston and Alexander City.

Susan Parker of Rogersville, the only PSC member who lives in the 256 region, said she is not sure which way she will vote.

Parker said that if the PSC decides to go with an overlay, that will set the pattern for when other area codes become short of numbers.

And that won’t be long because cell phones, wireless alarm systems and other technologies are gobbling up numbers.

The 205 area code, which covers Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, should run short in late 2012, Baker said.

That will be followed by the 334 area code in central and south Alabama in late 2013, he said.

The 251 area code in southwest Alabama should be fine for many years, he said.

All or part of these counties are covered by 256: Blount, Clay, Coosa, Calhoun, Chambers, Cherokee, Cleburne, Colbert, Cullman, DeKalb, Elmore, Etowah, Franklin, Jackson, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Lee, Limestone, Madison, Marion, Marshall, Morgan, Randolph, St. Clair, Talladega, Tallapoosa and Winston.

Parker said there is no decision on what Alabama’s new area code will be. That’s up to the North American Numbering Plan, which governs the management of telephone numbers.

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On the Net:

Public Service Commission: http://www.psc.alabama.gov