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Plan to Add Area Codes Divides L.A. County : Telecommunications: Splitting 310 region will be costly for those affected. O.C. is expected to face similar problem in 1997.

October 08, 1995|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California, the telephone, cellular phone, fax and pager capital of the world, is in the midst of a serious numbers crunch. Namely, all the telephone numbers in this corner of the nation are being gobbled up.

The problem is most acute in Los Angeles County, where having five area codes just won't cut it anymore.

Take, for instance, the 310 area code, which came into existence less than four years ago. It is about to be split again, with more than 2 million unwilling recipients--in all likelihood those living from Long Beach to Whittier--who have been chosen to receive the new 562 area code.

But that is only the beginning. According to Pacific Bell, Los Angeles County may have as many as nine area codes by the turn of the century. Hearings began last month on splitting the 818 area code. The 213 area code could be carved up as early as 1999. And talk is already beginning about splitting up the 310 area yet another time, although it is unclear who would be affected by another division.

Orange County, which most recently split with Riverside County, keeping the 714 area code for itself, is expected to receive another area code by the end of 1997.

"The demand for telecommunications has exploded," said California code administrator Bruce Bennett, who monitors growth trends within the state. "Area codes used to last 10 to 15 years. Now the average is more like 5 to 7 years."

California, which began with three area codes in 1947, now has 13, a number that is expected to increase to at least 22 within the next five years--by far the largest number in the nation.

At stake is much more than the redrawing of a few lines. A new code costs millions of dollars to the area that gets stuck with it, as stationery, signs, billboards and even national advertising must be changed.

Legal Challenges

Telecommunications giants are working to impose their own agendas on the upcoming split. Lawsuits have been filed about how the new area code should be assigned. City officials continue to squabble and put forth arguments about why their municipalities should be spared the new 562 area code. Making the change even more costly is that the new codes might not even work for many telephones.

The same issues will affect virtually every corner of the county over the next five years as lines are drawn and redrawn.

The result: a giant telephonic mess.

The cause of this new hunger for telephone numbers is the wireless revolution that has taken hold within the last several years. The sales of cellular phones and pagers have taken off, as have facsimile machines and extra telephone lines for computer hookups as more people work out of their homes. Automatic banking machines are another drain on lines and there is still an increased demand for that most basic of tools, the home telephone.

In 1988, 1.8 million telephone lines were added to the California system, 15% for wireless communications. This year, about 7 million lines will be added, with about 60% for wireless equipment.

And within the 310 area code, which serves parts of northern Orange County, about 80% of the new lines during the last year were for cellular phones and pagers. The 310 area code is on track to obtain a new number around the turn of the century. The area is fast approaching the magic 5.5 million lines mark, the point at which a region requires another number.

In Orange County, more than 1.33 million new telephone lines have been added to the 714 area code since 1992, when it had just 2.9 million numbers. Nearly half the additional numbers were for cellular phones and pagers.

"It's like a snowball coming down the mountain," said Bennett. "It's getting bigger and bigger."

As Pacific Bell spins the story, the area code overload was manageable until a few months ago. The telephone company wanted to take the new area code and simply lay it over the present 310. In that way, those who already had 310 codes would keep them and any new numbers would be issued a 562 code.

But some new players in the local telephone game challenged the overlay idea. Giant long distance carriers and cable companies will be entering the local telephone delivery service next January as part of a sweeping change in the market. These companies--including AT & T, Sprint and Cox Cable--complained that Pacific Bell was dealing itself an unfairly sweet hand with the overlay plan and making it hard for new companies to compete for customers.

J.G. Harrington, a lawyer for Cox Cable, said that with the overlay plan, Pacific Bell and General Telephone--carriers already serving the 310 area code--would have continued access to those numbers. In contrast, he said, the new carriers would be forced to take only 562 numbers, putting them at a disadvantage.

"Someone who comes into the market would have to take all the numbers from the new area code," Harrington said. "If there is a split, everyone has access to both the new and the old area codes."

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