By HOWARD FINE
Not so long ago, the only area code that L.A. area businesses had to remember was 213. Now, it seems that every time they look up, there's a new number.
Already, L.A. County has eight area codes: 213, 310, 818, 805, 626, 562, 760 and 909.
In June, what's left of the once-mighty 213 area code is being split into 213 and 323; essentially, 213 will be a donut hole ringed by 323.
And a proposal next month will recommend a new area code be carved out of 310, which has gained a cachet as the code for Westsiders.
But where once L.A. area businesses greeted an area code change with a chorus of protest, many now view it as less of a cost and stigma, accepting the multiplicity of numbers as the price of telecommunications technology.
The explosion has been caused by a dramatic increase in the number of devices requiring new phone numbers, such as faxes, cellular phones, pagers and modems.
When national area codes were introduced in California in 1947, there were three area codes, each with a capacity of 8 million numbers. Over the next 50 years, 10 more area codes were added, allowing for 80 million more numbers.
In 1997 and 1998 alone, however, another 10 area codes are being introduced in California the same number introduced in the preceding 50 years, according to the state's Public Utilitities Commission.
In L.A. County, phone number capacity grew from 8 million to 16 million between 1947 and 1991; by the end of the 1990s, that capacity will have been expanded by another 50 million and at least six new area codes will have been introduced.
"Everybody is so used to it now that changing area codes has essentially become routine," said Ray Frew, president of the Torrance Chamber of Commerce.
But that hasn't stopped businesses from wanting it to be the other guy who makes the change.
"Sure, we'd like to keep the 310 area code," said Richard Rosenzweig, president-elect of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce and executive vice president of Playboy Enterprises. "Nobody's thrilled with the prospect of having to change."
That's why the Beverly Hills chamber, along with several other Westside and beach cities chambers of commerce, is backing a plan for a new "overlay" area code in which all existing phone lines keep the current 310 but all new lines including new fax lines and modems get the new area code.
That means an existing business adding a fax line would have one area code for its regular phone lines and a different area code for its fax line.
The idea tested poorly with consumers in surveys, and as a result, the state PUC in 1996 placed a five-year hold on overlay area codes.
But an exception was made for the 310 area code, which is adding numbers at the fastest rate of any area code in the state. Only four years after being introduced, the phone companies were running out of numbers.
So in 1995 the 562 area code was announced for Long Beach and the stretch between the Long Beach and the San Gabriel River freeways.
But because so many people expressed a preference to remain in 310, the PUC ended up splitting off only a small portion of the 310 area. The remaining part was left so near capacity that only two years later it needs to be split again.
The PUC has not yet imposed the overlay. But the state's area code administrator a quasi-public official who represents the interests of the telecommunications industry is scheduled to present options for the future of 310 to the PUC next month.
Code administrator Doug Hescox said he is not recommending any one plan because the telecommunications industry is divided on the two basic options: splitting 310 geographically or implementing an overlay.
In the case of a geographic split, Hescox said he will present the PUC with several industry-proposed options, including one with Imperial Highway as the north-south dividing line and another option splitting 310 into three area codes.
The PUC will ultimately decide which communities stay in 310 and which get a new code.
That could become a touchy issue, since 310 has become a status symbol in much the same way as the Beverly Hills 90210 zip code.
Back in 1984, for example, some residents near the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains fought to become part of 310, viewing themselves more as Westside residents than as residents of the San Fernando Valley, which got 818.
The issue hits home in Culver City, whose location near the north-south center of the 310 area code would put it near the boundary of a geographical split.
"Culver City businesses are already split between 310 and 213," said Steven Rose, president of the Culver City Chamber of Commerce. "We don't want any further fragmentation, which is why we're supporting the overlay option."
Rose said that businesses want to be in the same area code as Beverly Hills and the Westside because of the city's entertainment presence.
"We are known as a Westside city, not a South Bay city, so we would want to be grouped with the Westside," Rose said.
The same issue came up in Long Beach, but lost steam after the area switched to 562.
"Initially, when we had to change to 562 last year, some people felt that there was a prestige factor," said Mark Gray, managing partner of Long Beach accounting firm Guzman and Gray. "It wasn't that we needed to be in the same area code as Beverly Hills or the Westside; it was more 'Why should we have to change instead of those wealthy folks up there?'
"But that feeling disappeared once the change was made," Gray said.
Rosenzweig said there would be no loss of prestige for Beverly Hills businesses if they had to switch area codes.
"Frankly, Beverly Hills will make the area code prestigious whatever the number is," he said.
One Beverly Hills business that definitely won't make a switch is the publication "Beverly Hills (213)," which, as its title suggests, didn't even make the switch in 1991 when Beverly Hills converted to 310.
"213 has become a brand name for us," said publisher Seth Baker. "We decided not to change over because we knew there would be splits every three to five years and that would mean no continuity for our ad agencies."
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