Bragging Rights to 212 Won’t Be a New York State of Mind

One of Manhattan’s status symbols, a telephone number starting with 212, would lose some of its exclusivity under a U.S. move to sever the link between geography and area codes.

Voice-over-Internet providers led by Vonage Holdings Corp. want direct access to the national pool of unused numbers. That would end their reliance on middlemen tied to area codes and offer new freedom to assign numbers regardless of location.

With the change would go a bit of urban culture celebrated in television’s “Seinfeld,” when character Elaine Benes schemes to get a dead neighbor’s 212 number, and in the “Sex and the City” movie, in which Carrie Bradshaw wails she’s “a 917 gal” who deserves New York’s oldest mobile area code.

“I’m very dead set on a 917 or 212, because I’m not one of the new people,” said Diana Mitchell, a sales and rental agent with broker Citi Habitats, based in Manhattan.

A 212 number shows clients “I’m not sitting in some borough somewhere,” Mitchell said in an interview. “They think, and I immediately think, ’office in Manhattan.’”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to let Vonage directly draw numbers as a trial while the agency considers rules to let more companies do the same. Vonage, in a petition, told the agency direct access to numbers would cut its spending on leasing numbers from carriers.

The proposal “would put us on a path to delink numbers from geography,” Genachowski said at a March 20 news conference. “But it’s not about the delinking as much as it’s about ensuring that any entity that’s providing a communications service has access to numbers.”

Trial Number

Vonage, based in Holmdel, New Jersey, now buys access to numbers including their area codes from middlemen, such as Level 3 Communications Inc., that have government authorization to pull from the pool maintained by the North American Numbering Plan Administration, a neutral overseer run by NeuStar Inc., based in Sterling, Virginia. Level 3 opposes the change.

Phone companies long ago took custody of the entire 212 pool of more than 7 million numbers, John Manning, senior director at the numbering administration, said in an interview.

About 19 percent of numbers in the 212 area code were available in 2009, among the lowest percentages in the U.S., according to an FCC report.

“If you’re in the right location with the right carrier at the right time, you can get them,” Manning said.

Numbers can become available when subscribers move away or die, when businesses fail, and when carriers go out of business.

Phone Future

The numbering inquiry is part of the FCC’s look at whether its rules are keeping pace with technological change. About 93 percent of U.S. households took telephone service over a wire from a traditional provider in 2003. That’s dropped to 26 percent as mobile phones and wired-Internet services grabbed most of the market, according to an estimate by USTelecom, a Washington-based carriers’ trade group.

Largest phone company AT&T Inc. wants the FCC to pare rules governing services driven by Internet technology. Like AT&T, which supports its petition, Vonage sees a changing world.

“Direct access to phone numbers is the future of telecommunications,” Kurt Rogers, chief legal officer for Vonage, said in an e-mail. “It allows for lower-cost, higher-quality voice service.”

Vonage’s Opponents

Vonage is seeking a cost advantage and shouldn’t be granted privileges before broader rulemaking takes place, Level 3, based in Broomfield, Colorado, said in a filing joined by Comptel, a Washington-based trade association that represents carriers.

“Vonage is essentially seeking to obtain the rights of a carrier without shouldering the corresponding obligations” states impose to ensure technical and financial soundness, Michael Shortley III, a Level 3 vice president, said in an e-mailed statement. Calls might be mishandled by companies without carriers’ experience, Shortley said.

States need to retain an oversight role to prevent companies not tied to a locality from running through all numbers available in a desirable area code, said Brad Ramsay, general counsel of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a Washington-based nonprofit that represents state commissions.

“If a bunch of carriers come in and start exporting those numbers, for a premium, then the area code exhausts” before it otherwise would have, Ramsay said in an interview.

212 Cachet

The links between place and phone number have weakened as people retain numbers when they switch wireless carriers, or to a voice-over-Internet provider. Consumers have been able for years to get phone numbers not tied to locations, said Rogers, the Vonage attorney.

“I think the cachet is largely gone,” Peter Rojas, founder of technology websites gdgt and Engadget, said in an interview. “I have a 212 cell number and it’s been a while since anyone was impressed with that.”

Some New Yorkers don’t want to hear it.

“There is a special category of social signifiers separating Manhattan-born people from late arrivals and the 212 fits that niche beautifully,” Tero Kuittinen, New York-based head of sales and marketing, for Alekstra Oy, a mobile-diagnostics company. “I am convinced that people will be ready to pay at least $50, maybe $100, for a 212 number.”

David Day hopes so. From Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, Day runs, which sells phone numbers with that prefix.

“Two-one-two will always be associated with New York -- because of the history,” he said. “Always was, always will be.”

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