HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

A full-fledged revolt among L.A.'s Westsiders has resulted from the introduction of the state's first 11-digit dialing zone and the prospect of still more area codes for the 310 region.

And guess what? They're getting action.

After months of intense pressure from residents and politicians, officials temporarily halted the overlay to be used for all new phone hookups in the 310 area.

"People are finally saying no to more area-code changes, and it started here in the 310 area code," said Richard Rosenzweig, president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce and executive vice president of Playboy Enterprises.

It's a striking contrast to other regions around Southern California, where most residents and businesses grudgingly accept the proliferation of area codes as the price to pay for new technology.

Why were Westsiders able to do what others could not?

Wealth and prominence were probably factors. Westsiders long have known how to exercise their political clout, whether in presidential politics or against projects affecting their neighborhoods. Area codes were no exception.

"People here are self-empowering; they don't like being talked down to," said Steve Teitlebaum, a plastic surgeon who started a Web site dedicated to stopping the area-code overlay.

Teitlebaum said he got involved after his office manager told him that he would have to purchase new phone equipment to accommodate the mandatory 11-digit dialing that was necessary for the overlay. He and other frustrated Westsiders turned to one of their state legislators, Assemblyman Wally Knox, D-Los Angeles.

"People wanted me to do something about this," said Knox. "This issue had been building for a long time, as people were dealing with more and more area-code changes. Just in my Assembly district, which had two area codes 10 years ago, there could soon be six area codes."

Fueling the outcry was word of huge numbers of unused phone numbers throughout the state a revelation that came after lots of prodding by Knox and other Westsiders, particularly Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, who has devoted many of his recent columns to the issue.

"When we got the state Public Utilities Commission to admit that 180 million numbers have been allocated throughout the state, but only 35 million of those numbers are actually in use, that's when things started to turn around," Knox said. "When the word went out, people knew it wasn't something that was inevitable. They knew it could be changed."

Rosenzweig said the situation was ludicrous.

"Clearly somebody is out of control here," he said. "What was going on was essentially a cover up, which is very irritating. To make us go through all the inconvenience of dialing 11 digits to call someone across the street, to reprogram automatic dialers and overhaul building security systems when there are thousands of extra numbers out there just waiting to be used. That's when people started to say 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.' "

It's not the first time Westsiders have used their clout to stop major changes or projects from going forward.

Until the 1980s, transportation planners wanted to convert Santa Monica Boulevard into a freeway. But those plans were repeatedly turned aside as influential Beverly Hills residents and business owners brought pressure to bear on elected officials.

To the west, residents of Pacific Palisades, with help from environmentalists, quashed plans by Occidental Petroleum to drill offshore for oil in the late '80s.

Then there's Ira Smedra's proposed Village Center Westwood retail and entertainment complex, which has been sharply scaled back after vehement opposition from nearby homeowner groups.

"Westsiders are politically active and they are very influential," said Laria Pippen, vice president of development for the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which recently opposed the imposition of the area-code overlay.

The current outcry stands out, however, because it's not just a neighborhood battle but a region-wide protest. Plus, the gripes seem justified.

Rosenzweig said that after word of so many phone numbers remaining unused, angry e-mails poured in from many of the chamber's 1,400 member businesses. The anger was not just over the 310 situation; it soon became more generalized over the sheer number of area codes throughout the region.

Before 1990, all of California had just 10 area codes. But in the past nine years, the state has added 15 new ones and faces the prospect of another 16 in the next four years. Just last week, PUC officials drafted an area-code overlay plan for the San Fernando Valley's 818 code.

To do business in L.A. County, you now need to know the boundaries of eight area codes.

And consider West Hollywood, which despite being just 1.9 square miles would be faced with three area codes with the new overlay. "Our businesses simply can't keep up with all the changes," said Pippen.

Such concerns prompted Knox to petition the PUC to halt the overlay the first time any such petition had ever been drafted in California. It was co-signed by the Beverly Hills/Greater L.A. Association of Realtors and several Westside homeowner associations.

The commission granted the request while seeking changes from the Federal Communications Commission in the way new numbers are granted to the many phone companies competing for business throughout the state.

It was the wealth and prominence of the Westside that fueled the push for an overlay zone in the first place. That's because, with the deregulation of phone markets, the Westside with its higher-than-average demand for cell phones, faxes, pagers and modems quickly became one of the most attractive markets for telecommunications providers.

"The 200 or so phone companies authorized to do business in California are all battling for the 310 customers," Knox said. "It's the demographics of the 310 (zone) that the phone companies are after."

As a result, each of the phone companies entering the market applied for and received from the PUC tens of thousands of phone numbers, even though they did not have the customers for all those numbers.

"The 310 area code has been among the hardest hit in the state," said Tim Sullivan, advisor to PUC Commissioner Henry Duque.

Now that the overlay suspension is in place, the PUC is seeking the authority from the FCC to change how it hands out numbers. In May, the FCC drafted a series of steps to address the problem, including assigning numbers in blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000.

Knox said that might slow the rush for new area codes but doesn't address the underlying problem of making sure that more of the numbers that are assigned get used. He is pushing legislation aptly titled AB 818 to force the PUC to require all phone companies to provide information on just how many numbers they are using.

Ultimately, he said, some mechanism must be put in place to reassign currently unused numbers.

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