GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Valley Metro Council favors splitting the 616 area code in half, instead of adding an overlay. The regional planner’s position mirrors the one held by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
Council members unanimously voted last week to split the 616 area in a way that would keep Kent and Ottawa counties within the same dialing code. Earlier, the council’s legislative and executive committees also voted to support a split.
“We feel that this is a very important issue. It will affect businesses, homes and government,” said Kentwood Mayor Bill Hardiman, who chairs the legislative committee.
But across the country, and despite many protests against overlays, various public service commissions have chosen these over splits in 73 percent of the cases. Oakland County in southeast Michigan is one of the latest examples.
GVMC members heard both sides of the controversy last week. John Schwartz, external affairs director for Ameritech, presented the case for an overlay. Rusty Merchant, chamber vice president of government affairs, argued against one.
The council and the chamber prefer a reform of the system rather than a split or overlay, especially in how phone numbers are distributed. Ameritech also agrees with that reform.
But the council and the chamber differ with the phone company on an overlay. Both feel it will be the more confusing than a split, as new numbers to the 616 area will also get a new area code under an overlay. So, if a business adds phone lines under an overlay, the company will find itself with two different area codes under the same roof.
Both also claim it will be more costly for businesses to adapt to the overlay as current phone systems will either have to be upgraded or scrapped for new ones. Also, both say that an overlay means every local call will require 10-digit dialing — the seven-digit number and the area code. Calls between the two area codes would be toll-free, though.
But Ameritech views the overlay as a more practical way to address the growing number of requests for new lines, largely fueled by the addition of computers, fax machines and other high-tech equipment that require a phone line in homes and businesses.
As for 10-digit dialing, Ameritech sees it as a natural progression of the phone system when lines are added. A half-century ago, all calls were operator assisted without dialing.
Although he wasn’t sure of the exact cost of either, Schwartz said a split would likely cost Ameritech more, requiring between 6,000 to 8,000 manpower hours to make the switchover.
“I don’t really know the cost expenses for either one. I do know the split is more time-intensive,” said Schwartz.
“We believe the overlay is more costly,” said Merchant.
Tomorrow, May 8, is the last day to voice an opinion with the Michigan Public Service Commission on whether the 616 area should be split or overlaid.
Oakland County recently learned it is getting an overlay in June 2002, despite a strong protest. The county’s chief executive, L. Brooks Patterson, led the fight against one and asked for the 248 calling area to be split with a new area code.
“It’s a recipe for confusion,” said Patterson of the overlay to the Detroit News. “I can see the chaos coming when your daughter gets a phone and you now have two area codes in the same house.”
But NeuStar, the company that administers the phone-numbering system, said the county needed another area code because of the high demand for computer and fax lines.