Since the introduction of cellular telephone service in the United States in 1983 the subscriber has always had to pay for airtime, even when receiving a call. Many wireless subscribers don't give out their number they way they do for a wired phone, fearing they will have to pay for unwanted calls. Other subscribers keep their phone turned off unless placing a call.
Under a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) recently issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), all that may change. The FCC is seeking comments on a billing policy termed Calling Party Pays (CPP) under which the person calling a cell phone would pay the airtime charges rather than the cell phone's owner.
The FCC's NPRM is a process to gather information prior to issuing a Report and Order (R&O). The FCC is seeking comments and recommendations on how best to remove regulatory and legal barriers to CPP and establish a national standard. Several issues need to be decided, including how to inform callers that they will be charged.
Under one plan, callers dialing a CPP subscriber will hear an automatic recording informing them of the charges they will incur. If they are calling from a payphone, an alternate means of payment would be offered, such as a credit card or third party billing.
Another plan would give CPP subscribers a separate area code, allowing callers to easily recognize when they'd be paying for the call. This plan could require callers to use long distance (1+ number) dialing to imply an additional toll charge. It would also require current wireless subscribers who wanted CPP to change their phone number, which is not a popular idea.
A more complicated question is how to actually bill the caller. Should the FCC require the local telephone company to add CPP charges to the monthly invoice, and collect the money on behalf of wireless providers? How would such a requirement fit in with the FCC’s stated path of deregulation? Even if the FCC did require it, how would the wireless company manage to get all the billing information (termed call detail records) to the proper local telephone company?
The wireless industry has long sought CPP, assuming it will increase wireless usage. Incoming calls currently account for less than 20 percent of all wireless calls, the assumption being that subscribers are reluctant to give out their phone number. With CPP such persons would presumably be more willing to give out their number, making wireless services more competitive with traditional wireline phones.
Wireless providers also like CPP because it opens up another pocket to pay for airtime. One FCC Commissioner openly voiced concern about whether market competition could prevent wireless companies from "price gouging" wireline callers.
Despite CPP being common in Europe, it's not clear how popular it will be in the United States. Many newer PCS subscribers already have the first minute of incoming calls free, and with the growing popularity of single rate plans CPP may be more of hassle than a convenience. Although CPP subscribers would presumably be able to specify numbers that will not be CPP, such as parents, children's schools, and close friends, many people have a wireless phone to make it easier for others to reach them, and adding a CPP barrier may take away some of that sense of connectedness.
New Area Codes
The explosive growth of cell phones, faxes, pagers, and other telephone-based products and services is rapidly exhausting the supply of three-digit area codes.
In 1984 a total of 125 area codes were in use. As of June 1, 1999, there were 215 active NPAs in the United States alone, with more than 50 additional International and Service codes in use. California alone is expected to have 41 area codes in 2002, up from just 13 in 1992. Nationwide, almost 70 new area codes are expected to go into service by the end of next year. Some demand estimates project that all 680 useable area codes could be assigned within ten years.U.S. NPAs IN SERVICE
In 1947, AT&T established the current ten-digit numbering scheme, termed North American Numbering Plan (NANP), with each telephone number made up of three parts. The first three digits are the Numbering Plan Area (NPA), otherwise known as the area code, which identifies the geographic region in which the subscriber resides. The second set of three digits is the exchange, which specifies the telephone company central office handling the subscriber. The last four numbers identify the line serving the subscriber. This plan worked well for half a century, when most homes had only one telephone and a single telephone company served the entire country. The introduction of cellular telephone companies in the 1980s and competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) in the 1990s have repeatedly exhausted NPAs and made area code splits and overlays commonplace.
With the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Congress gave the FCC jurisdiction over area codes. The FCC, in turn, has delegated to the states decisions about when and how to introduce new area codes. Area codes themselves are assigned and managed by an independent group called the North American Numbering Plan Administrator.
Each NPA has 792 possible exchanges, since exchanges cannot start with a zero or a one, or end in 11. Telephone companies are assigned one or more exchanges, with each exchange having 10,000 possible line numbers.
NPAs are exhausted when all of the 792 exchanges are assigned to a telephone company, not when each exchange has run out of their 10,000 lines. Most exchanges have thousands of lines that are not in use, but because of the way current telephone switches are designed, these idle lines cannot be used by a different telephone company.
There are two options when an NPA is exhausted. The NPA may undergo a geographic split, where the physical service area is divided into two or three smaller pieces and each piece is assigned a different area code. One piece keeps the original area code, and everyone in the other areas has to get new stationary and business cards.
The other option is called an overlay, where existing customers within the NPA keep their original area code but new customers receive numbers in a new NPA. This requires every caller to always dial ten digits, even if the destination is right next door. At present the entire state of Maryland and cities in Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Texas have 10 digit dialing. Some cities in California and Pennsylvania are transitioning to 10 digit dialing.
In the near term, several options are being debated to ease NPA exhaustion. The most promising is a technique called Number Pooling, in which telephone companies receive numbers in blocks smaller than 10,000. This requires significant computer software changes in telephone switches, but promises to greatly increase the efficiency of existing exchanges.
If we do eventually run out of area codes, one or more digits may have to be added to every telephone number. Such a change could cost upwards of $150 billion and take a decade to complete.
New Spectrum Allocation
As covered in earlier PCS Frontline columns, the FCC is under a mandate from Congress to auction parts of the radio spectrum. The latest block of frequencies to come under scrutiny are the UHF television channels 60 through 69, between 746 MHz and 809 MHz. Under their NPRM process, the FCC is seeking comment on what services should be allowed in this band and how to segment and license the blocks.
The FCC has tentatively set aside two blocks of 12 MHz for public safety use, and suggested the two remaining blocks of 18 MHz be paired for two-way wireless communication similar to PCS, cellular, and Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR). They have left open the possibility for the band to be used for some kind of broadcasting as the existing television station owners transition to digital TV service.
If you're in the market for a new scanner, keep in mind the public safety blocks in this band could soon be carrying police, fire, and medical radio traffic, so look for either a full-coverage receiver or one that covers 764 MHz to 806 MHz.
Global System for Mobiles
Wireless providers in the United States using the Global System for Mobiles (GSM) standard got some good news and some bad news earlier this year. The good news is that GSM will gain coverage in several major cities over the next year or two. In April of this year the FCC completed the reauction for C block PCS licenses, and GSM operator Cook Inlet/VoiceStream PCS had the high bid for Chicago, Dallas, Omaha, and several other cities in Illinois, Texas, Arizona and Louisiana. Other cities added by GSM operators include Detroit, St. Louis, Buffalo, Rochester, and Cleveland, bringing GSM to 98 of the top 100 markets.
There are more than 3.6 million GSM customers in the United States, with 600,000 added in the first quarter of 1999.
All told, the 17 day auction (number 22 for the FCC) sold 302 licenses and raised a total of almost $413 million in bids for the U.S. Treasury.
As for the bad news, GSM is losing coverage in the 10th largest market in the country. Sprint Spectrum, the first PCS operator in the United States and profiled the October 1996 PCS Frontline, is shutting down.
American Personal Communications started Sprint Spectrum in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland area in November, 1995, partnered with Sprint. Sprint PCS subsequently bought out APC in January, 1998, and extended their nationwide Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network to the area two months later.
Rather than continue to operate two rival and incompatible networks in the same market, all 100,000 Spectrum customers will be transitioned to Sprint PCS by November, 1999. The GSM network infrastructure will be shut down soon afterward.
Sprint PCS has 3.35 million customers, having added 763,000 in the first quarter of 1999.
Nextel, the Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) carrier, added 415,000 customers in the same period, bringing their customer total to more than 3 million. AT&T Wireless reported 378,000 new customers, with more than one million Digital OneRate and 10 million total subscribers.
That's all for this time around. More information is available on my website at http://www.decode.com, including updates on the Iridium, Globalstar, and Orbcomm satellite constellations. I welcome electronic mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, happy monitoring!
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