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Engineer patents his system to return to days of seven-digit phone dialing

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The way Dr. Richard Levine looks at it, his answer to the proliferation of area codes and phone numbers is so logical and efficient that phone companies will have no choice but to adopt it.

Dr. Levine, a telecommunications engineer, began knocking on regulatory and industry doors several years ago with his "System Beta" plan that would restore seven-digit dialing. It would also let users have just two phone numbers – one each for home and office – for a variety of telecom devices.

To a dialing-weary public, it sounds like a good idea. And with four-digit area codes on the horizon, Dr. Levine thinks that it's time for a universal solution for the country.

But so far, Dr. Levine has met with little more than mild interest from regulators and telecommunications companies.

Regulators say they don't have the authority to force phone companies to adopt Dr. Levine's software. The phone companies don't really give him a good excuse, he said, although one representative said the public would find his system too difficult to use. (Dr. Levine said he'd like the public to make that decision.)

Brianna Gowing, a spokeswoman for GTE, said the company's engineers had reviewed Dr. Levine's system and found that it had some technical drawbacks that had not been addressed.

Janee Briesemeister, who represents Consumers Union in Austin, said that several different solutions or answers to the problem have been put forth.

But Consumers Union is skeptical that there is an easy fix to the problem.

"These things all cost money,'' Ms. Briesemeister said. She added she was not very familiar with Dr. Levine's system.

Unfazed, Dr. Levine is now trying a new tactic. He is shopping his newly patented system – the patent was issued last week – to individual telecom providers as a proprietary product, one he says will give them a leg up on the competition.

"I tried altruism and the public interest," said the 61-year-old engineer, who also teaches part time at Southern Methodist University. "Now I'm appealing to the profit motive."

Selling "easy dialing" might be a competitive edge these days. Customers, Dr. Levine said, are being told to remember new area codes or change their dialing behavior more and more often. Telephone companies are adding an average of an area code every week across the country.

"They'll run out of three-digit area codes maybe as early as 2004. It's pretty clear we're headed for four," he said.

Here's how Dr. Levine says his system would simplify the dialing dilemma:

One number would work for a variety of devices, from fax machines to pagers. Users would enter a one-time code – say, star-333 – to identify a line as a fax or cell phone line. Each device would have its own code. A caller dials one number and the preprogrammed codes route the call to the correct device.

Dr. Levine bills his system as a money-saver. There are an estimated 50 area-code changes every year, each costing about $20 million. A four-digit area code system could cost $70 million, he said.

The software would be easy for phone companies to install, he said, because the existing network already includes databases for Local Portability Service, which lets users keep the same phone number even though they might switch providers. It's a technology that encourages competition.

"We're already paying for this in our phone bills," he noted.

Other engineers have tried to poke holes in his system, but Dr. Levine said he's been able to come up with answers. For example, he's been asked whether his system would have to be installed all at once over an entire network, the dreaded "flash cut" method of implementation which can be seriously disruptive if it fails. "I've got that worked out," he said.

Dr. Levine also has figured out how to make his system work with various new services that providers are selling these days, from Caller ID to messaging systems. Customers could still block unsolicited sales calls, for example.

System Beta could also help customers with serious health problems. Diabetics could pre-register a code so that their emergency calls to 911 would be recognized, allowing for speedier dispatch of the appropriate medical personnel.

Dr. Levine says the apparent obstacles to simpler dialing don't frustrate him. He took a lesson, you see, many years ago at MIT under the tutelage of pioneering photographer Harold Egerton.

It took Dr. Egerton five years to convince skeptics that something called the strobe light could freeze images of tiny fractions of processes at very high speeds.

So Dr. Levine puts his faith in the rigors of his science.

"If you've got the goods, it will prove itself."
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