A New Era for Area Codes

Times Staff Writer

Capping nearly a decade of debate, state regulators on Thursday voted to create California’s first area code overlay, in the 310 region, meaning that phone customers in the South Bay and Westside will have to dial 11 digits for all calls beginning next summer.

New phone numbers within the 310 area will be issued a 424 area code sometime next year under the decision, which marks a defeat for community leaders who up to now have pushed back efforts to split or overlay the 310.

“It’s a pain,” said Mike Nicol, general manager of Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica. “Any time you change things, there are problems.”


The decision by the state Public Utilities Commission has implications beyond the 310. Within three years, Orange County’s 714 and southeastern California’s 760 will run out of numbers, according to the North American Numbering Plan Administration. By 2009, the San Fernando Valley’s 818, San Francisco’s 415 and San Jose’s 408 are likely to be exhausted as well.

Until now, California regulators have dealt with such shortages by splitting up area codes into smaller geographic areas, often angering residents and business owners because of the expense and hassle of changing stationery and signage.

Regulators and phone company officials said that if the 310 overlay proves successful, as others have in New York and elsewhere, it would provide a different and less obtrusive model for adding new area codes without forcing millions of phone users to change their numbers.

“The fact that the commission has taken a historic step to create an overlay in this area code will make it easier to consider overlays as a means of relief” elsewhere, said Michael Bagley, executive director of public policy for Verizon Wireless, one of the companies pushing for the overlay.

Still, the overlay generated strong opposition across the 310 zone, which runs along the coast from Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and inland from Beverly Hills through most of Inglewood and Torrance.

Residents and businesses that need extra numbers will have to contend with two different area codes. Moreover, some residents fear loss of the cachet they say goes with having a 310 number -- a status symbol long associated with Westside wealth and beach living.


Santa Monica resident Steve Chapek said he is most concerned that the overlay would erase the geographic identifier that comes with “living in the 310.”

“People will be calling 424 and be saying, ‘What’s this? Where am I calling?’ ” said Chapek, a 35-year-old map shop employee.

Phone customers in the 310 will have to reprogram instant-dial telephones and fax machines to accommodate the dialing of 11 digits. Some alarm and security systems that use phone lines might malfunction if they cannot store more than seven digits.

Thursday’s vote in San Francisco appeared to end a particularly fierce -- and at times colorful -- grass-roots campaign that pitted a band of community activists and local politicians from places like Santa Monica and El Segundo against telephone companies and cellular phone providers.

When the idea of overlaying the 310 first emerged in the late 1990s, the activists immediately moved to challenge the phone companies’ contention that the 310 was rapidly running out of numbers. A Santa Monica plastic surgeon launched a website to rally opposition.

Their campaign was buoyed in early 1999, when the state revealed that 3 million phone numbers were still available in the 310, and that phone carriers held on to an unknown quantity of phone numbers for future use. A few months later, the PUC scuttled the overlay idea.


Until recently, the phone industry was pushing for a 310 split, with the South Bay getting the 424 area code and the Westside keeping 310. But the PUC expressed concerns about the plan amid complaints that it would force a large number of phone customers to change their numbers.

Though new to California, overlays have been used for years in 15 states, including New York, Texas, Ohio and Oregon. Atlanta, for example, has three overlapping area codes, and officials have said it didn’t take much for people to get used to them.

Opponents hoped to derail the plan after the Federal Communications Commission unexpectedly granted the state permission late Wednesday to create two special area codes -- known as “technology-specific or specialized overlays” -- in California for certain business devices, such as ATMs, cash registers and fax machines.

But PUC commissioners said that the plan, announced in a four-sentence press release late Wednesday, was too vague and simply came too late.

“The time necessary to receive the order, understand its components and implement the order will quite likely exceed the time before exhaust happens in the 310 area code,” said PUC President Michael R. Peevey. “If the FCC had acted last year, we may have had time to implement these measures to save the 310 area code a while longer.”

The PUC staff said there are only nine prefixes left in the 310 area code that can be assigned to phone companies, out of 792 possible prefixes. Each prefix has 10,000 numbers.


The plan was approved unanimously by the five-person board, which last year saw the departure of two commissioners -- Loretta Lynch and Carl Wood -- who had been skeptical of the need to change the 310. Both were appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis. Their replacements are appointees of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Some 310 residents remain unconvinced.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Etta Lerner, a resident of Culver City. “I think they have plenty of numbers they still can use without doing that.”

Scott Taylor, district manager of the Futon Shop in West Los Angeles, said the overlay would be confusing for his customers. “Still,” he said, “it’s better than a split.”

State Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), an overlay opponent, criticized the PUC for approving the plan without first studying whether the FCC’s action on the two special area codes.

“It’s frustrating, it’s annoying and it’s disappointing that after all these years, the PUC is still more interested in what the phone companies want than what the people who are paying the bills want,” Bowen said in a statement.

But there was also a sense from opponents that the long battle might finally be coming to an end.


“I don’t sense that there is going to be any challenge,” said Marna Smeltzer, president of the South Bay Assn. of Chambers of Commerce. “You can always think it’s over or it’s not over, but for now, we’re moving on with the decision.”

Under the plan, callers will be given a grace period beginning Dec. 31, to reprogram machines and get used to the new system. But on July 26, 2006, all customers will be required to dial 11 digits when making local calls -- even to a neighbor across the street -- and by Aug. 26, carriers will be able to give out phone numbers with the new 424 area code.

In the end, PUC officials said, they believe Southern Californians will easily adapt to 11-digit dialing. As a La Canada Flintridge resident of the 818 area code, commission president Peevey said he often has to dial 11 digits to make business or personal calls to 626 in Pasadena, 323 in Los Angeles, and 310 on the Westside.

“I’m always dialing 10- or 11-digit numbers,” Peevey said. This is “what’s happening in our society, with the great growth of communication equipment.”



New area code

The Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to overlay a new 424 area code on the 310 area.

Other California area codes are expected to run out of numbers in the year indicated:

*--* Code Location Year 408 San Jose 2009 415 San Francisco 2009 714 Orange County 2008 760 Southeastern California 2008 818 San Fernando Valley 2009



Sources: Calif. Public Utilities Commission, North American Numbering Plan Administration

Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this report.