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Court Bolsters FCC Area Code Effort

In another setback for wireless carriers, judges' decision opens the door to cell-phone-specific area codes.

June 18, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court cleared the way Tuesday for the Federal Communications Commission to allow new area codes exclusively for cellular phones and pagers, rejecting industry arguments that the practice may unfairly burden wireless carriers and their customers.

The decision, the second court setback for the wireless industry in recent weeks, was seen as bolstering the FCC's efforts to slow the explosion of costly and disruptive changes to existing area codes, even though the court upheld the FCC mostly on technical grounds.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the legal challenge raised by carrier Sprint Corp. wasn't valid because the FCC had not authorized any new cell-phone-specific area codes yet.

"We hold that this challenge is not ripe for judicial review," Judge Judith Rogers wrote. "By declining to decide Sprint's general challenge now, we preserve our own ability to decide intelligently, not only Sprint's challenge but any future challenges to specific specialized overlay proposals."

The same court this month struck down an attempt by the wireless industry to delay or eliminate a Nov. 24 deadline set by the FCC for the wireless industry to allow subscribers to keep their mobile phone number when they switch carriers.

Sprint spokesman James Fisher said company lawyers were studying the latest ruling and had no comment. Representatives of Cingular Wireless, which joined Sprint in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment.

The FCC has been trying to find ways to conserve phone numbers for more than a decade, hoping to avert a conversion to an 11-digit dialing system that the agency told the court could cost as much as $150 billion.

A decade-long surge in the number of electronic gadgets such as fax machines, modems and cell phones has rapidly depleted the available pool of phone numbers. Simultaneously, a growing number of telephone carriers seeking large blocks of numbers to serve new customers also contributed to red-hot demand that threatened to exhaust all area codes by 2010.

California, which intervened in the case to support the FCC, is among the hardest hit by phone number demand. The state has added 14 area codes since 1991, and some experts say a run on phone numbers in the Los Angeles-area 310 code and in San Bernardino County's 909 area code might trigger more additions, pushing the state's area code total to more than 25.

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