Wireless Companies Protest Plan to Cut Cell Users From 310 Area Code

Staff Reporter

The 310 area code would be replaced with a new area code for all cell phone users under a plan backed by the California Public Utilities Commission that is likely to stir complaints in the politically influential Westside.

The PUC plan, the first of its kind in the nation and now before the Federal Communications Commission, is being sparked by a shortage of available numbers due to a surge in the use of cell phones. The plan also calls for the changing of cellphone numbers in the 909 area code on the eastern fringe of L.A. County. It would affect 2 million to 3 million customers.

Targeting only cellphone users, the "technology overlay" is a compromise that follows a proposal three years ago to impose a blanket area code overlay affecting all phones in the entire 310 territory. Under that plan, a new area code would be given to all new phone customers, so that placing a call to the neighbor next door might require punching 10 digits.

"We realize this is an inconvenience for all wireless customers, but with these area codes due to exhaust all their numbers within the year, we believe this is the option with the least overall impact," said Helen Mickiewicz, deputy general counsel at the PUC.

A coalition of wireless phone carriers including AT & T; Wireless, Sprint PCS, Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless opposes the PUC plan and is lobbying the FCC to reject it.

"This proposal singles out Los Angeles area wireless phone customers to lose their current numbers," said Susan Pedersen, executive director of the Cellular Carriers Association of California. "This approach is unnecessary and unfair."

Instead, wireless carriers want the PUC to reconsider the blanket overlay that was rejected after a group of Westside activists banded together and persuaded state officials to instead reallocate hundreds of thousands of unused phone numbers being hoarded by phone carriers. Those numbers will be exhausted by the middle of next year.

"Back in 1999, these overlays were still in the early days," said Jan Morris, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. "Now, they are being used in 41 area codes around the country and people are adjusting to them."

The FCC is expected to take up the plan early next year. If approved, it could go into effect by next July 1.

Machines affected

Additionally, every new automated teller machine, credit card dialer, or other automated dialing machine in the 310, 323, 213, 562 and 909 area codes would go into the two new area codes.

In the past, the standard response of regulators when confronted with an area code running out of numbers has been to split that area code geographically. But with so many splits occurring in the 1990s L.A. County alone went from three area codes to eight opposition grew to the constant listing changes required to keep up with the splits. Also, as the concept of overlays has taken hold nationwide, regulators see them as a less painful way to break up area codes.

So this time around, a geographic split, while still technically on the table, is viewed as a last resort by all parties.

"A geographic split would force half of the seven million numbers in use in the 310 area code to be changed, which would have a huge impact," Mickiewicz said. "The technology overlay would only impact about 1.5 million wireless customers."

Three years ago, much of the anger with the PUC's proposed blanket overlay was not directed at the plan itself but at the revelation that phone companies both wireless and land line were storing hundreds of thousands of unused phone numbers.

In response, the PUC ordered phone carriers to store unallocated numbers only in blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000. "That move gave the 310 area code an additional two or three years of life," said Evan Goldberg, spokesman for state Sen. Deborah Bowen, R-Redondo Beach. Bowen got a bill passed in 2000 that ordered the PUC to implement technology overlays for new area codes unless overruled by federal regulators.

In addition, with the collapse of the telecom market and the slowing economy, several wireless and other phone carriers went out of business, thus returning their unused numbers back to the PUC to reallocate.

Just last month, wireless carriers started reducing their unused number pools as part of a nationwide agreement with the FCC.

Nonetheless, so many new cell phones and other electronic items using phone numbers have been added in the 310 and 909 area codes over the last three years that the pool of unused numbers has rapidly shrunk. It is now estimated at less than one million for both area codes combined.

Also, Mickiewicz said, the PUC plan would allow for the preservation of some seven-digit dialing within the 310 and 909 area codes. Land line-to-land line calls and cell phone-to-cell phone calls within the 310 and 909 boundaries could still be made by dialing seven digits. A broad new-number area code, on the other hand, would require 10-digit dialing for all numbers.

The PUC's preferred plan for a technology overlay will pose difficulties and additional expenses for businesses and residents. For one thing, any stationery or business card in the 310 or 909 area code that lists a cell phone number will have to be updated. Also, many automatic dialers will have to be reprogrammed.

Analog reprogramming

In addition, anyone with an analog cell phone, which have been phased out over the last four years, must have their phone reprogrammed at a service center. Most, if not all, digital cell phones can be switched remotely by wireless carriers.

Nonetheless, at least one local business group is solidly behind the proposal.

"Businesses, especially small businesses, would be less impacted by a technology overlay," said Mark Waronek, chairman of the South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce, which represents 13 chambers and some 50,000 businesses across the South Bay. "The geographic split and the general overlay would be too much of a burden, especially when this economy is in a downturn."

And the proposal has the support of several local elected officials, including Bowen, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Redondo Beach, and L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe. Last month Harman held a town hall meeting on the matter.

"Our goal is to avoid a split of the 310 area code," Harman said at the meeting. "The plan for a technology overlay won't disrupt most consumers, small businesses and senior citizens."

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