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Plan for New Area Code Put on Hold

Bowing to residents and firms, the state utilities board opts not to split the 310 area and impose 424 on the South Bay region and San Pedro.

October 17, 2003|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

In a victory for local businesses and residents, a divided California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday voted not to impose a new area code on the South Bay -- at least not in the foreseeable future.

Telephone service carriers, saying they were rapidly running out of numbers in the 310 area code, sought the change that would have affected the communities south of Los Angeles International Airport. They included most of Hawthorne and El Segundo, Carson, Compton, Gardena, Lawndale, Lomita, Torrance, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, the cities on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and San Pedro.

But opponents, citing the expense and inconvenience of switching numbers, especially for elderly customers and small businesses, argued that the change would be premature. They lobbied for several technological and rule changes -- such as allowing cellular phone users to keep their numbers when they switch carriers -- that they believe would ensure sufficient numbers for the region.

The so-called "portability" rule for cell phones has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission and goes into effect next month. The FCC also is expected to consider a PUC request to allow a different, or "technology specific overlay," area code for machine-dialed phone numbers, such as those for credit card transactions at ATMs and gasoline pumps.

The commission's 3-2 vote to delay ordering a new 424 area code drew cheers from some of the business and political leaders who argued for months that the new area code was not needed.

"I am happy that, through the leadership of those commissioners who were willing to work with us, we are not going to have to make costly changes -- to our letterhead, our computer data bases, our business cards -- in this tough economic time," said Redondo Beach Councilman John Parsons, chairman of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments.

The organization of 16 cities and the South Bay Assn. of Chambers of Commerce had lobbied hard against stripping their communities from the 310 area code, which also covers the Westside. Several lawmakers from the area also opposed the split, as did the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Last spring, four years after the first attempts to split the area code prompted protests from Santa Monica to San Pedro, a state regulatory judge proposed the new area code for the South Bay, again stirring angst.

Commissioner Loretta M. Lynch soon offered a wait-and-see alternative, and the agency put off a vote on the proposed split three times over the summer.

Lynch said Thursday that she was still optimistic that conservation measures and FCC rule changes could delay the need for a new area code indefinitely. She urged commissioners to vote for her alternative and to closely monitor the number availability situation over the next six months.

The split would have been premature, Lynch said. "No one's goal is to run out of numbers."

Voting with Lynch were Commissioners Susan P. Kennedy and Carl Wood.

Commission President Michael R. Peevey, however, said it was time to make an unpopular decision to avoid a potential crisis if the region ran out of numbers. He voted no, as did Commissioner Geoffrey F. Brown.

"I understand everyone will be unhappy," Peevey said in arguing for the split. "We don't have the option of further delay."

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), one of several South Bay legislators who have fought an area code split, praised the PUC's decision.

"With its vote, the [commission] has decided to aggressively pursue number conservation measures that will make an area code split unnecessary for the foreseeable future and may also avoid 25 more splits in California," Harman said.

Her office released a letter from FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell promising to expedite the agency's handling of the PUC request to allow a separate area code for ATMs and other machine-dialed services.

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