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Regulators May Be Told Today to Consider More Area Codes in 909

May 02, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

A state judge today is expected to order utility regulators to consider adding two area codes to the sprawling Inland Empire, possibly by the end of the year.

Currently the westernmost portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties are covered by the 909 area code, but industry and regulatory studies show those numbers could be exhausted by mid-summer.

California Public Utilities Commissioner Loretta Lynch said Thursday that an administrative law judge was expected to issue a ruling today on "whether and when" new area codes might be needed for the area. The judge could not be reached for comment.

But, Lynch said that because phone companies are allowed to stockpile unused numbers, she believes there are plenty of numbers available. She said she and other commissioners will look carefully at whether breaking up the Inland Empire into three area codes is necessary.

Cell phone carriers and others have sought the expansion in the region, one of the fastest growing in the nation.

The PUC in 1999 suspended plans to add two codes, 951 and 752, to the area. By law, the commission must begin planning for new area codes because this year the supply of available 909 numbers fell below 1 million.

Lynch acknowledged that the state might need to split 909 eventually because there is a finite variation of numbers available. But she says conservation measures could forestall the switch for several years.

She suggested other solutions -- such as special area codes for phones connected to credit card machines, faxes and other machine-to-machine devices -- could be studied to see if they can ease the burden on existing area codes.

Lynch also sees help in two measures pending before the Federal Communications Commission. One would allow wireless customers to keep their cellular phone numbers if they switch carriers. Wireless firms have been fighting hard to prevent this, largely because they believe it will lead to more customers switching.

Allowing portability, Lynch said, would reduce the need for wireless companies to assign new numbers to customers they win over from rivals.

Under another measure, telephone companies assigned blocks of numbers would be allowed to donate more of their unused numbers to a general pool for other carriers. The FCC has not yet ruled on that matter.

Any plan to split the area covered by 909 is expected to draw fire from small businesses and consumers.

"It's a monumental, costly hassle for people to change their area code," said Lynch.

Times staff writer Jim Granelli contributed to this report.

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