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Communication: When the phone company says that more innovations are in store, they're not just handing us a line. In Orange County, consumers appear eager for the latest technology.

February 23, 1996|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember when there was only one phone in the house?

Remember when there was only one phone line in the house?

Nowadays in upscale, high-tech Orange County, people are consuming telephone lines and numbers like popcorn at a movie.

Modern houses may be pre-wired for as many as three telephone lines, but some owners find they are having to install more wires. Nowadays when Pacific Bell strings a connection to any house, it uses wire that can handle five lines.

Less than 20 years ago, telephone company planners declared that no more area codes would be needed in the nation for the next 100 years. Now California's 13 area codes are expected to double by the turn of the century.

Orange County's 714 area code, created in 1951, has been growing by 650,000 phone numbers a year. It will soon consume its 7.9 million possible telephone numbers, according to Pacific Bell, which plans to impose a second area code on Orange County around January 1998. The number of the area code has not yet been announced.

The pressure for new lines and phone numbers is coming from technology that until recently no one expected to take root in the middle-class home, says Pacific Bell spokesman John Britton.

It works this way, he says.

The family may already have two lines, one for the family and one for the kid. The average number of lines for all households in Orange County now is approaching two, which is high compared with many other regions.

Then Dad or Mom buys a computer and discovers it comes with a modem for connecting via telephone to online services and the Internet. They soon learn that while the modem is connected, it ties up the family phone line, so they install a third line just for the computer.

That's great, says the kid, for whom the parents long ago bought a computer "to do your homework." The kid, an Internet veteran, demands a computer line too. That's four.

Dad's or Mom's boss, who is running short of office space, asks whether some of the work can be done at home. It proves convenient, but soon they discover that business calls are tying up the family line. They install one more line for business calls and another line to send and receive business faxes. That's six.

And after the house down the block is burglarized, they decide to put in a security alarm system, which requires its own phone line. That's seven.

"Oh, yes," says PacBell engineering manager Ron Hosoda, "we have households with seven lines." It's not all that rare in upscale developments, he says.

The cost of all the lines adds up. Some typical charges: $35 to activate a line; if it's needed, $123 to install interior wiring; $15 a month for service.

It's possible of course, to have more phone numbers than you have phone lines.

The kid has a pager; they've been popular among teenagers for years. Mom and Dad have a cellular phone between them, and the kid gets one for calling home in emergencies. That's three more phone numbers consumed--10 phone numbers in all.

This explosion of household communications happened amazingly rapidly--over the past 12 years, in Britton's estimation.

And while it accelerates, it will change direction very soon, say communications planners. New technology and the new competition among telephone and cable companies are going to make people view personal communications in a different light, they say.

*

"Light" is the key word. Both telephone and cable companies are replacing their distribution wires in Orange County with fiber-optic lines--cables of hair-thin, translucent filaments that conduct pulses of light.

These lines can carry communication that simple telephone wires never could--high-definition video images and sound, computer data at speeds 1,000 or more times faster--and carry them simultaneously with voice communications.

PacBell says one fiber-optic filament can carry more telephone traffic than 672 pairs of copper telephone wire. At the same time, the fiber could be delivering 800 channels of cable TV.

Pacific Bell is installing fiber-optic lines in Orange, Villa Park and Cypress and hopes to have them in most of Orange County by 2003.

Cable companies, with smaller networks to convert, are moving faster. Cox Communications, the cable firm that serves Orange County south of Tustin, expects to complete its work by the end of this year.

*

Changes in state and federal communications laws have made direct competition between telephone and cable companies possible. Already cable is strung within reach of 97% of all U.S. television households, and about six in 10 already are subscribers.

"Cable is a $25-billion-a-year industry. Telephone is $180 billion," says Michael Schwartz, a cable industry researcher. "If we can get only 1% of telephone revenues, that's almost $2 billion. That's a bunch for us. We don't need large penetrations."

According to Schwartz, the cable industry is looking to ally with long-distance telephone companies.

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