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562 Area Code Running Out of Phone Numbers

Telecom: Long Beach area faces yet another split or could get a code added in an 'overlay.'


Pressed by another looming phone number shortage, planners have begun laying the groundwork for a new area code in the Long Beach area that could debut as soon as October 2000, even though businesses and residents there switched to 562 less than two years ago.

The news, revealed Monday, will probably further irritate businesses and callers only now getting used to the 562 area code, which was introduced in January 1997 to relieve a number shortage in the 310 code.

"I have to be the bearer of bad news. . . . It's a very unfortunate thing," said Joe Cocke, senior area code administrator for California and Nevada. "But if you're a business [in the 562 area code], I wouldn't order too much stationery--not much more than 2 or 2 1/2 years' worth."

Area code 562 covers Long Beach, Lakewood, Artesia, Norwalk, Downey, Whittier, Paramount and Pico Rivera in Los Angeles County as well as a small portion of Orange County.

Although a new code could go into service as soon as October 2000, the 7.9 million usable phone numbers within 562 could last until 2002, according to estimates by the National American Numbering Plan Administrator, a neutral agency set up by the federal government and run by a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp.

The organization will consult with area phone companies and then hold public hearings on the 562 area code plan within the next six months.

There are two primary options for new area codes: a "geographic split" or an "overlay" area code. With geographic splits, planners draw new boundaries and switch some customers to the new area code.

In an overlay, approved just once in California, a second area code is added to cover the entire region. Existing customers don't have to switch codes, but since two area codes co-exist, callers must dial 11 digits (1-area code-XXX-XXXX, for example) even when ringing up a neighbor.

The California Public Utilities Commission must approve the final plan.

Ideally, a recently split area code will last at least five years, and people who have switched codes will not have to change again for eight to 10 years.

But in area code 562 and in a growing number of cases nationwide, those guidelines have been flattened by spiraling demand for phone numbers for Internet connections, facsimile machines, additional home phone lines, bank ATMs, pagers, wireless phones and the like.

"This kind of demand caught the [telecommunications] industry by surprise, and it's happening all over the country," Cocke said. "It's all supply and demand."

Part of the problem in 562 stemmed from the long planning period that precedes each new area code's introduction--a process that typically stretches three years.

With 562, debate over the boundaries and other disagreements delayed its introduction for about six months, then demand for numbers surpassed the estimates, which were several years old by then, according to Cocke.

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