managing an area code relief project
by Michael W. Strickland, PMP
Fifteen minutes had elapsed since the mystical “12:01 a.m. on May 01, 1996.“This milestone date and time had been indelibly etched in the minds of the project team for 18 months. As I stared at the PC monitor screen. It was hard to realize that I was tracking an event that would change forever the telecommunications landscape of South Carolina. As the pre-constructed data packets changed the software programming of a major telephone central office switch, I and the software support representatives on the project team were very excited that “12:01 a.m., May 01, 1996” had finally arrived. However, our excitement was tempered by the unnerving realization we were completing a project our customers, telecommunications services consumers, did not want! Despite nearing project completion and close-out, we still had not convinced the public in South Carolina that they desperately needed the fruit of our labors: A new area code for Upstate South Carolina. That still seemed to be Mission Impossible!
TELECOMMUNICATIONS LIVES and breathes (and sometimes dies) on a concept known as the worldwide numbering plan. Closer to home, it is referred to as the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), which governs all telecommunications for World Zone 1 (Canada, the United States, and most of the Caribbean Basin). Developed in 1947 by AT&T Bell Laboratories and controlled today by the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA) group under auspices of the Federal Communications Commission, this numbering system provides a unique telephone Numbering Plan Area (NPA) code for all geographical land areas.
In recent years, with the advent of cellular and paging communications, the numbering plan also covers “geographical airwaves.” The first area code, 201, introduced in Engle-wood, New Jerseyy in 1951 provides insight into the design of the numbering system. NANP developed what seemed to be an ingenious scheme consisting of an N0/1X format: N= digits 2 through 9, “0” or “1” for the middle digit, and X=digits 0 through 9 for the third digit. This format using either “0” or “1” as the middle digit provided a maximum of 160 NPAs. Conversely telephone number “prefix” or “exchange” codes (the first three digits of your seven-digit number) were designed to never include “0” or “1” as the middle digit, in order to avoid confusion and technical problems with the newly created area codes.
Surely the developers at NANPA felt the pool of 160 area codes would last well into the 21st century. Based on the telecommunications landscape at the time, consisting of basic voice telephone service and experimental data communications, their assumptions seemed to be solid. They never dreamed of what would dawn in the decades to follow.
Dial-A-Mess. “Gentlemen, we have met the enemy and it is us!” Stand squarely in front of a mirror and ask yourself if you are the cause of the nationwide telecommunications numbering nightmare that has developed in the last two years. Pose these questions: Do I own a pager? Do I own a cellular telephone? Do I own (or use) a facsimile machine? Do I have more than one telephone line in my home? Or, do I use a computer modem to surf the World Wide Web?
Exhibit 1. Of the 17 area-code relief projects currently planned or in progress, the majority involve number changes in busy metropolitan areas. Even if these changes are carried out on schedule and under budget, the relief projects could still become “Dial-a-Mess” without buy-in from the telecommunications customer—a principal stakeholder in the effort.
If you answered yes to any one of these questions then you, my friend, have caused the problem. With the recent explosion of facsimile, modems, pagers, cellular telephones and additional residential lines the demand for telephone numbers has skyrocketed. Mathematically, each NPA code could support 1,000 telephone “prefix” codes. However, with many of these reserved for special use and others restricted for technical reasons, the effective maximum is less than 800. Tremendous telephone number demand has caused new NPAs to be assigned at an exponential rate. Only 20 new area codes were introduced from 1984 through 1994. Compare that with 16 codes introduced in 1995, 11 in 1996, and a similar quantity forecasted in 1997-98. Exhibit 1 shows the NPA code relief in progress or planned in the near future.
In 1994, the last of the traditional NPAs was assigned (you remember, those with “0” or “1” in the middle). The states of Alabama and Washington broke new ground in January 1995 when they introduced the first “interchangeable” area codes: 334 and 360. Unlike all of the other area codes, these had one telltale sign (you guessed it—no “0” or “1” in the middle!). In fact, they were “interchangeable” with telephone “prefix” codes. By using these funny-looking area codes, we gained a new pool of 640 NPAs. Problem solved. Right?— Wrong! Without realizing it, we had created one of the biggest dilemmas ever known in the history of telecommunications in the Western Hemisphere.
Many telephone systems in businesses, hospitals, schools, and other locations mysteriously stopped sending calls to Alabama and Washington state when people tried to use the new “334” and “360” area codes. These private branch exchange systems (PBXs for short) could not process the call unless the area code contained the old familiar “0” or “1” in the middle. Upon investigation, it was determined the only solution was a software upgrade, or in many instances, a very expensive replacement of the entire system! Companies delayed the inevitable upgrade or replacement. Many simply took the position “who calls lower Alabama anyway?” This inability to “reach out and touch someone” caused an absolute firestorm as more and more area codes were introduced. NBC Nightly News described the problem in a feature segment on March 29, 1996. National publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and others highlighted the problem. Litigation against local telephone companies filled the courts. “Dial-A-Mess” seemed to have gripped our nation. Unfortunately, no one was looking in the mirror!
Mission Impossible. Against this backdrop of a national numbering crisis and public sentiment against new area codes, the state of South Carolina faced its own dilemma. Since introducing direct dialing of long distance calls in 1960, South Carolina had enjoyed the stability of one area code, 803, serving the entire state. However, due to explosive population growth and resulting demand for numbers, it became evident in the fall of 1994 that a new area code would be required. Approximately 100 prefix codes remained in the 803 NPA, which was forecasted to exhaust by early 1996. Twelve to 18 months to accomplish a project of this proportion from inception to close-out seemed woefully inadequate.
BellSouth Telecommunications had been appointed as NPA Coordinator and assigned the project management function for the new area code. Several pressing issues needed immediate resolution: determine the geographical area within the state that would receive the area code; quickly develop a project plan and gain consensus of the telecommunications industry; secure funding for this unexpected project; obtain necessary regulatory approval; and most important, educate telecommunications consumers in South Carolina (and nationwide) that the project was necessary.
Scope Constraint. Several options existed for providing NPA relief, most of which were very undesirable. Option 1, a boundary realignment, consisted of transferring several hundred “prefix” codes into an adjoining NPA and effectively changing the geographical boundaries of existing area codes. For a single NPA state, this would involve regulatory negotiations between adjoining states; an infeasible approach.
The second option involved creation of an “overlay” code, which places a second area code within the same geographical boundary as the existing area code. The “overlay” method had already caused an absolute war between telecommunications providers in the Chicago and Los Angeles areas. After hearing this story, we retreated quickly from that option.
The only viable relief method was an area code “split.” Under this arrangement, South Carolina would be divided into two large geographical areas. One area would receive the new NPA, the second would retain the existing NPA. The trouble was—who would get what?
In early October 1994 BellSouth personnel began an exhaustive study of telephone “prefixes.” We looked at historical usage in each of the major population centers of the state. Economic data concerning population, business, and industrial growth were factored in. Although telephone number demand was increasing statewide, it soon became clear that most of the telecommunications growth was concentrated in upstate South Carolina in the major metropolitan areas of Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg. BMW, the European automobile manufacturer, had recently built its North American Headquarters and manufacturing facility outside Spartanburg and the Interstate 85 industrial corridor was exploding with suppliers locating in the Upstate to support that factoryy Our NPA project team soon determined that a new NPA, which would “fix” the number problem for at least 17 years, should be activated in this dynamic area of the state.
We then presented our plan to the South Carolina Telephone Association, an industry group representing all 28 local telephone companies in South Carolina. After several meetings, this group gave their concurrence. By December a final plan had been adopted by the entire industry of local, long distance, paging and cellular companies. Next, as project manager, I presented the plan to the South Carolina Public Service Commission. Within one week, much to my delight, the S.C. PSC granted approval. Upstate South Carolina would soon become home to a new “864” area code (see Exhibit 3). This would directly impact approximately 600,000 landline telephones in addition to thousands of cellular and paging customers whose area code would be changed. Countless others, both nationally and internationally, who would place calls to these customers’ lines would also be affected by the area code change. It was December 20, 1994.
Cost Constraint. “What budget?” seemed to be the rallying cry of the corporate money holders when we approached them about funding the project. Since the project did not contain any readily visible revenue, we could not calculate Net Present Value, Rate of Return, Net Present Worth, and the other measurements that excite corporate budget gurus. All we had to show was a gigantic expense of $3.4 million in labor and database system changes. Our project did not play well when compared to the superstar services such as ISDN and Internet access that our customers really wanted.
Exhibit 2. This map reflects the large number of new area codes introduced in 1995-96 alone. Numerous new codes forecast in 1997 and beyond will impact all users of telecommunications.
Exhibit 3. The “upstate” of South Carolina boasts a booming economy along the Interstate 85 corridor. An expanded base of available phone lines was just part of the infrastructure needed to support new industry and population growth.
Exhibit 4. When thousands of businesses and individuals are depending on a seamless transition to a new area code, the changeover must happen on schedule and without a hitch. This timeline shows the major milestones of the South Carolina relief project.
To exacerbate the problem, a major database that supported Operator Services functions had been diagnosed with the PBX “plague.” It could only recognize NPAs with “0” and “1” in the middle and was incapable of handling calls that had the new breed of area codes. The only solution proved to be complete replacement of the database at a cost of $2.5 million. In addition, $450,000 had to be allocated for an effective advertising and customer education campaign.
Schedule Constraint. “Prefix” codes in the existing 803 NPA were steadily being depleted. On average, six to ten codes were being assigned each month for new services and growth. In addition, a new radio spectrum for the next wave of wireless communications, Personal Communications Services (PCS), was being auctioned by the FCC. One large PCS service area that had just been awarded was North Carolina, South Carolina and eastern Tennessee. PCS would require even more prefix codes. We didn't need rocket scientists to see that our 803 area code would not last beyond 12 to 14 months, making relief essential in first quarter of 1996.
The Fourth Constraint. A review of the project timeline in Exhibit 4 indicates the limited time available to complete the project. However, despite rigorous scope, cost and time constraints my biggest fear was how to effectively manage the project's fourth constraint: Convince the public this project was really needed! No one wanted to experience the disruption in their personal and business lives that would be created by this new NPA. In addition to a major dialing change, many databases nationwide that keyed on telephone numbers would require updating.
Regional Scope and Schedule. Taken alone, South Carolina's woes would be quite a challenge for the project team. However, in a classic case of “exponential grief,” not only was South Carolina exhausting its area codes, but four other Southeastern areas were as well. BellSouth was the NPA coordinator and project manager for all five area code relief projects. Joining South Carolina in this austere group Atlanta, Georgia, exhausting 404 and adding 770; eastern Tennessee, exhausting 615 and adding 423; south Florida, exhausting 305 and adding 954; north Florida, exhausting 904 and adding 352.
Many of the same factors causing number exhaust in South Carolina were also at work in these other areas. Each location, however, had its own unique problems—not the least of which was Atlanta's growth in preparation to host the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Inadequate funding to accommodate five NPA splits was of great concern. But, that was minor when compared to the task of planning and executing the reprogramming of 30 corporate databases that affected everything from service provisioning, to billing, to diagnostic testing of customer lines for five different NPA splits in the span of only 12 months. It truly seemed to be an impossible mission.
Management of Projects and Project Management. Clearly, if our project was to succeed and the necessary number relief provided to South Carolina, application of professional project management techniques would be essential. However, the corporation faced five such projects, all requiring equal urgency. A global, integrative approach was the only solution.
In the January ‘96 issue of PM Network, Rudolph Boznak very eloquently differentiated between project management and management of projects. Boznak's insight into the need for both of these disciplines was very strongly confirmed with the regional dilemma faced by BellSouth in dealing with five concurrent critical projects. Our recognition of the need for a global approach prompted the convening of a conference in Atlanta in January 1995. This meeting was attended by the corporate NPA coordinator, NPA project managers from each of the five areas, the project manager from our information technology group (who had responsibility for changing the 30 corporate databases for each NPA split), central office software specialists, budget personnel, and two major equipment suppliers, Lucent Technologies and Nortel. As a result of this day-long discussion, decisions were made to help ensure success of each individual project:
Exhibit 5. Over the next 10 years, the NANPA estimates that more than 80 new area codes will be needed to handle telecommunications growth in the U.S. Project management skills will be essential to bring these area code relief projects in on schedule—and to handle the difficult public relations project that will accompany each changeover.
- ∎ Establish a regional command center to execute corporate database conversions for each of the five projects with a priority timetable assigned to each state. The corporate database conversion project manager in concert with each state project manager would conduct a “talk through” with all system users prior to the actual conversion. Risk contingencies and backup procedures were developed to ensure each conversion could be handled beginning on a Friday night and completed before the start of business the following Monday morning.
- ∎ Contract with our switch suppliers to handle software programming required to place the new area code into the Automatic Number Identification logic of all impacted central offices in each state. Nortel and Lucent coordinated schedules for all switches. This action freed BellSouth personnel to handle software modifications required to allow customers to dial the new area code.
- ∎ Share best practices and lessons learned from past NPA relief projects.
- ∎ Identify all budget requirements and how to prioritize funding.
- ∎ Develop a regional advertising campaign with shared advertising copy, promotional brochures, customer billing inserts, etc. This would help minimize advertising cost of the individual projects. Also, it was decided to use the services of an inbound telemarketing company to handle calls and provide information and problem resolution. One-on-one customer contact was encouraged through our marketing organizations and adopted as a priority by all employees.
On December 01, 1995, the arduous task of modifying all corporate databases to reflect the new South Carolina 864 area code was completed. With only minor glitches, the team in the Atlanta Command Center had everything back in service by Sunday afternoon, December 03.
As part of contingency planning, on November 18 our software specialists had pre-programmed and tested all central offices to allow dialing of the new area code. At midnight, on December 01, 1995, access to the new area code was successfully provided to the public for “optional” dialing.
Customers who misdialed the old “803” area code after May 01, 1996, were routed to an announcement that provided the new area code and asked that the call be redialed. Our project team pioneered the development of a special version of this announcement that could be accessed by the hearing impaired. This modified version, in keeping with the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, printed the announcement text so the message could be read by the hearing impaired customer. Our effort in developing this special announcement led to its use by other Southeastern states for their NPA splits.
Customer complaints concerning the new NPA were minimal and media reaction was uneventful. BellSouth State President for South Carolina, Joe M. Anderson, Jr., hosted a dinner reception for the project team. It was noted in retrospect, due to the minimal customer reaction, the NPA split was almost a “non-event.” I considered this the highest compliment that could be given a project manager! ∎
After development of the regional project plan and methodology to cope with five NPA splits, we began implementation of the individual projects. South Carolina's NPA project was assigned a date of December 03, 1995, for conversion of the corporate databases. This date also coincided with the national date on which the area code could be dialed by the public on an optional basis. Final implementation and mandatory dialing of the new NPA was set for 12:01 a.m. on May 01, 1996. These dates were published to the national telecommunications industry in a letter from NANPA on March 14, 1995.
In January 1995 we assembled our South Carolina project team and immediately developed a project plan that would help ensure we reached our timetables. Detailed WBS and Task Sheets were created for every aspect of the project. Project team members were assigned to each area of the project and were accountable for timely completion of each individual task in their assigned area. Monthly project meetings were held using a detailed agenda for each meeting, which was strictly followed. Timely follow-up was given to all action items.
We also started educating the public about why this monumental change in the numbering plan was necessary; In addition to our media campaign, employees began to socialize the project and its impact one-on-one with customers. We established our own “South Carolina Area Code Assistance Hotline” to provide information and assistance to customers. We were doing everything we could possibly do to ensure success of the project and minimize its impact on the telecommunications consumer.
Exactly 15 days later after the implementation date, I led the project close-out meeting of one of the most successful projects with which I have been associated. Through application of professional project management discipline and techniques, South Carolina alleviated its critical problem. Customer service and economic development is continuing unrestrained by the fear of inadequate telecommunications number resources.
The overwhelming success of this project was directly attributable to application of professional project management techniques:
- ∎ Global coordination and integration with all related projects. The exercise of management of projects techniques together with project management. (A thorough knowledge of the national and regional telecommunications environment and its local impact was necessary)
- ∎ A detailed project plan developed with input from all concerned stakeholders, with all risk contingencies thoroughly developed.
- ∎ A motivated and empowered team dedicated to successful implementation of the project. (Delegation of work with adequate reporting/tracking was essential.)
- ∎ Timely and frequent dialogue with the customer (telecommunications consumer) through a multiplicity of communications channels. (Pre-emptive planning to thwart negative customer reaction afforded very positive dividends.)
- ∎ Corporate support and empowerment of the project manager.
Career Outlook: The NPA Relief Project Manager. As telecommunications complexity and sophistication increases, number resources will continue to be consumed at an exponential rate. Intelligent networks may someday slow this demand through use of “personal” numbering schemes. One telephone number will be assigned that is unique to you (i.e., your own telephone “social security” number). Your physical location, no matter where you are at any given time, will be registered in a database that will be able to route calls to your unique telephone number worldwide. However, this sophisticated technology is not expected to lessen the immediate demand for new area codes. NANPA is forecasting a need for over 80 new area codes from 1997 through 2006. (See Exhibit 5.) BellSouth will be involved in the introduction of 11 new codes in 1997-98. I will once again be called upon to project manage our third area code in South Carolina, which will be activated in March 1998.
STUDIES ARE PRESENTLY under way by the Industry Numbering Committee, a standing committee of the Industry Carriers Compatibility Forum, to determine the method for future expansion of the NANI. The work of this committee is expected to take several years. No matter what shape the North American Dialing Plan assumes in the future, the need for NPA relief projects is certain. Without question, there will be many new projects and much “job security” for NPA Relief project managers. The quality of these future projects and success of the NPA project manager can only be assured through application of professional project management techniques. Telecommunications consumers worldwide will demand nothing less. ∎
Michael W. Strickland, PMP, is manager of network projects for BellSouth Telecommunications in Columbia, S.C. He has 25 years experience in planning, design and engineering of telecommunications network architecture and infrastructure. He is a founding member and president of the South Carolina Midlands PMI Chapter.
PM Network • March 1997
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