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I'd Like VoIP Service, And Can You Make That 212?

Does having to dial an area code for a local call bug you? VoIP vendor Vonage lets customers pick their area code. Some think area codes are bound for oblivion.
Will area codes become endangered? Voice-over-IP vendor Vonage has for some time let subscribers pick the area code of their choosing. Now it says customers can make local calls without having to dial an area code at all. Some think area codes could disappear all together.

Coupled with number portability for cell phones and you-pick-it area codes for VoIP subscribers, the fundamental geographical reason for area codes is disappearing, according to one observer of the telecommunications business. "Five years down the road, [the phrase] 'area code' will be a misnomer," says Kevin Mitchell of Infonetics.

After offering subscribers the option of choosing from 179 area codes, regardless of where subscribers are located, Vonage took another step Wednesday toward rendering area codes obsolete by offering to eliminate them entirely. "Many [subscribers] have been asking for seven-digit dialing to make it easier and quicker to dial local friends and family," said Vonage chairman and CEO Jeffrey Citron in a statement.

Mitchell, who is directing analyst of Infonetics' telecommunications area, noted that the future demise of area codes has its pros and cons. On the plus side, businesses can use a geographically distant area code in an outsourcing context to give it the appearance of having a location near customers. "You can appear to have a local presence," he says.

Some subscribers may have an emotional attachment to their area code and with some area codes there may be a prestige factor--for instance, as with New York City's 212 area code.

But the predicted demise of area codes can have a downside. Mitchell observes that a business operating from a foreign country can choose a U.S. area code for VoIP service and not be beholden to U.S. regulations. Congress may have added to the problem when it ruled in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that telecommunications companies offering information-based communications--as VoIP firms do--aren't subject to traditional U.S. telecom regulations.

And then there is the issue of 911 emergency calls--what about a cell phone or VoIP caller who has a San Francisco area code, but calls "911" while in New York? Congress, the FCC, and telecommunications companies are all addressing the issue, but, to date, there is no universal solution. Vonage, for instance, has been testing 911 solutions in a handful of states in which it operates.

"One big horror story could influence this," says Mitchell, noting that bad publicity surrounding a 911 call that fails to generate emergency assistance to someone in need could influence future regulations.

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