Southern California, the telephone, cellular phone, fax and pager capital of the world, is in the midst of a serious numbers crunch. Namely, all the telephone numbers in this corner of the nation are being gobbled up.
The problem is most acute in Los Angeles County, where having five area codes just won't cut it anymore.
Take, for instance, the 310 area code, which came into existence less than four years ago. It is about to be split again, with more than 2 million unwilling recipients--in all likelihood those living from Long Beach to Whittier--who have been chosen to receive the new 562 area code.
But that is only the beginning. According to Pacific Bell, Los Angeles County may have as many as nine area codes by the turn of the century. Hearings began last month on splitting the 818 area code. The 213 area code could be carved up as early as 1999. And talk is already beginning about splitting up the 310 area yet another time, although it is unclear who would be affected by another division.
Orange County, which most recently split with Riverside County, keeping the 714 area code for itself, is expected to receive another area code by the end of 1997.
"The demand for telecommunications has exploded," said California code administrator Bruce Bennett, who monitors growth trends within the state. "Area codes used to last 10 to 15 years. Now the average is more like 5 to 7 years."
California, which began with three area codes in 1947, now has 13, a number that is expected to increase to at least 22 within the next five years--by far the largest number in the nation.
At stake is much more than the redrawing of a few lines. A new code costs millions of dollars to the area that gets stuck with it, as stationery, signs, billboards and even national advertising must be changed.
Telecommunications giants are working to impose their own agendas on the upcoming split. Lawsuits have been filed about how the new area code should be assigned. City officials continue to squabble and put forth arguments about why their municipalities should be spared the new 562 area code. Making the change even more costly is that the new codes might not even work for many telephones.
The same issues will affect virtually every corner of the county over the next five years as lines are drawn and redrawn.
The result: a giant telephonic mess.
The cause of this new hunger for telephone numbers is the wireless revolution that has taken hold within the last several years. The sales of cellular phones and pagers have taken off, as have facsimile machines and extra telephone lines for computer hookups as more people work out of their homes. Automatic banking machines are another drain on lines and there is still an increased demand for that most basic of tools, the home telephone.
In 1988, 1.8 million telephone lines were added to the California system, 15% for wireless communications. This year, about 7 million lines will be added, with about 60% for wireless equipment.
And within the 310 area code, which serves parts of northern Orange County, about 80% of the new lines during the last year were for cellular phones and pagers. The 310 area code is on track to obtain a new number around the turn of the century. The area is fast approaching the magic 5.5 million lines mark, the point at which a region requires another number.
In Orange County, more than 1.33 million new telephone lines have been added to the 714 area code since 1992, when it had just 2.9 million numbers. Nearly half the additional numbers were for cellular phones and pagers.
"It's like a snowball coming down the mountain," said Bennett. "It's getting bigger and bigger."
As Pacific Bell spins the story, the area code overload was manageable until a few months ago. The telephone company wanted to take the new area code and simply lay it over the present 310. In that way, those who already had 310 codes would keep them and any new numbers would be issued a 562 code.
But some new players in the local telephone game challenged the overlay idea. Giant long distance carriers and cable companies will be entering the local telephone delivery service next January as part of a sweeping change in the market. These companies--including AT & T, Sprint and Cox Cable--complained that Pacific Bell was dealing itself an unfairly sweet hand with the overlay plan and making it hard for new companies to compete for customers.
J.G. Harrington, a lawyer for Cox Cable, said that with the overlay plan, Pacific Bell and General Telephone--carriers already serving the 310 area code--would have continued access to those numbers. In contrast, he said, the new carriers would be forced to take only 562 numbers, putting them at a disadvantage.
"Someone who comes into the market would have to take all the numbers from the new area code," Harrington said. "If there is a split, everyone has access to both the new and the old area codes."
Walter Mosley, of AT & T's governmental affairs division, said Pacific Bell had done its best to paint the new entrants as rogues trying to disrupt the present telephone system.
"They have not been hesitant to get in there and mix it up in their own best interest," Mosley said.
Pacific Bell counters that the public will be hurt by the continued geographic slicing up of area codes. Last summer, an administrative law judge came out on Pacific Bell's side, ruling against a geographic split of the 310 code. But he was overruled in August by the California Public Utilities Commission.
In an 80-page ruling, the commission said an overlay plan would hurt competition. Only one commissioner, Henry M. Duque, dissented, saying that a split would be unfair to the 2.5 million people who would have to go through yet another area code change.
"We were absolutely flabbergasted," said PacBell lawyer Colleen O'Grady, who argued the case before the administrative law judge.
A geographic split means that Long Beach, the county's second-biggest city and one that has been hard hit by the economy and defense cutbacks, is expected to receive the single biggest portion of the 562 numbers.
That has given rise to a second battle, this time among the cities threatened by the financial hardship of a new area code.
At an August meeting of public officials that was called to discuss how the 310 code might be carved up, Pacific Bell took a straw poll of the cities, giving each one vote, no matter what its population. Long Beach, a city the size of Miami, had a single vote, as did each of the others.
The predictable result was that nine cities from Long Beach to Whittier were handed the 562 code while 17 others will remain in the 310 code. The vote will probably be the determining factor in how the 310 code will be divided, PacBell officials said.
"All those little cities just ganged up on Long Beach," said Marc O'Krent, a voice mail service executive who heads a recently formed advocacy group called Stop Our Split.
Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill was irate, but to no apparent avail. She fired off a letter to the Public Utilities Commission in September, laying out her objections to the way the decision was made. Chief among them was the one-city, one-vote method.
"This meant that the one vote of the city of Long Beach, representing 430,000 residents, had the same weight as the vote of such communities as El Segundo, representing only 16,000 people," she wrote.
She went on to say that the northern half of the present 310 area code should be assigned the new area code because "Long Beach cannot afford to once again be faced with the expense, the economic disruption and the confusion caused by changing area codes."
Since it became clear that Long Beach was the likely candidate for the 562 code, Pacific Bell's Paula Olivares, who is overseeing the area code split, has received more than 100 letters of complaint from businesses and individuals.
Among those objecting were the Long Beach Hilton, which contends that the change will cost an additional $100,000 in printing costs, and the Port of Long Beach, which said that changing area codes will disrupt international phone calls and thus harm its global shipping traffic, a major source of revenue for the city. The confusion would be worsened, the port contended, because the Port of Los Angeles would remain in the 310 code.
Rick Porcaro, owner of two tuxedo rental stores in Downey and La Mirada, said the area code change was unfair, particularly to small-business owners.
"The last split cost me plenty in printing costs and sign costs," he said. "Running a small business is so expensive, I'm tempted to close up or sell. It seems like they should have had more foresight."
Among the complaints are that businesses bore these expenses less than four years ago. On this count, the voices of the Long Beach area have company. Culver City Mayor Steven Gourley believes that the time has come for planners to bear some responsibility for the confusion generated by new area codes.
"The problem is that they are not planning any more than two years ahead," he said. "The phone company should pay for all the damage being done here and then come up with a 20-year plan."
Pacific Bell counters that the demand for new numbers had been underestimated by the marketers of cellular phones and other wireless communications.
The new 562 area code should last until 2009, phone company officials say. But the area remaining in the 310 area probably will face another split by 2000, they said.
As if the question of area codes weren't complicated enough, there is another wrinkle almost certain to affect those getting the new numbers. Some of them won't work.
Until recently, all area codes had either a zero or a one as the middle digit. But all of the 144 possible combinations have been used up, forcing the telephone system to go to area codes with other numbers in the middle.
The result has been havoc in places where these new numbers have been introduced. Many company communication systems have been programmed to recognize only the old-style area codes, and telephone officials say about a third of the nation's phones have to be reprogrammed to recognize the new ones. In some cases, that means merely adding the new code to the list. But older systems require costly upgrades.
More confusion is expected next April, when toll-free numbers will start either with 800 or 888.
And at some point, telephone officials say, another digit will have to be added to the nation's area codes. That will be more costly than anything before it, because every telephone system in the nation would have to be modified.
"To add another digit will require billions and billions of dollars," said Andrea Cooper, Pacific Bell's strategic numbering manager. "Our effort now is to extend the numbers in the North American system for as long as we can."