Down here in the 619, folks are marginally aware that North County residents are throwing a fit over their area code. It seems that 760, the vast area code that stretches from Lee Vining near Yosemite National Park all the way down the state's eastern border and then west to Oceanside, is nearly out of phone numbers. To solve the problem, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided on April 29 to split 760 in two. The San Diego County portion of 760, roughly from Julian to Oceanside, would have to switch all its numbers to 442 to avoid having 10-digit dialing within the geographic area.
Citizens, feeling like they'd had little public notice of the decision and worried about at least $60 million for businesses to change signs and business cards, whipped up a website, mounted an enormous e-mail campaign, enlisted elected officials and petitioned a judge to order the PUC to reconsider the decision, while also lobbying the PUC on its own to give it a second look. On Tuesday, a judge agreed with the petition and proposed an overlay of 442, in which the new code would be granted to new phone numbers, but no one would have to change his old number. The PUC must still approve the judge's opinion at its Oct. 16 meeting.
Right about now, 619ers are either thinking: a) “Area codes are so 20th century, and I'm a 21st-century hipster with a cell phone that knows no limitation” or b) “760 is North County.” Yes, it is, but get this: 619 is expected to reach exhaustion relatively soon—in 2014. And if the PUC splits 619, cell-phone users could find themselves changing their numbers, just like their landline parents.
Of course, one has to ask: Just how do they know that the area code is going to run out of numbers?
They don't actually count all the users. Phone numbers are managed by the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA), a contractor for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that tracks prefixes, the three digits in a phone number that follow the area code. If you eliminate all the reserved prefixes, like 911, and all those that start with one and zero, there are 792 prefixes in each area code, and each prefix contains 10,000 numbers. So, that means each area code potentially has 7.92 million phone numbers in it.
Well, no one seems to have worked out the number of people living in the current 760 (and that includes the PUC), but an FCC report says that as of Dec. 31, 2007, there were 3.5 million numbers used up. That suggests that there are 4.42 million numbers still free for assignment. That's more than half. So what's the deal?
Well, NANPA only counts by prefix. Phone companies apply to NANPA to get a prefix, and then they assign the numbers out. NANPA senior engineer Joe Cocke told CityBeat there were only 35 prefixes left to be assigned to the phone companies. So, based on population projections, they think 760 will run out of numbers in fall 2009.
Now, here's the catch with prefixes: They're attached to geography. Phone companies look at the area code and the prefix of a phone number to decide how much to charge for the call. This is why someone in Julian can call El Centro for cheap but San Diego might be a toll call, while CityBeat can dial up La Jolla (with its 858 area code) as a local call. And it's also why it's difficult for phone companies to just shuffle numbers around. Sure, there might be 17,000 available numbers in Carlsbad (and there are at least that many), but they can't just give them to people up in Mammoth Lakes. The FCC has created a system that allows companies to give away numbers in blocks of 1,000, rather than 10,000, but the prefix confines it to the geography.
Here's a side note for cell-phone users: Most people have heard of “local number portability,” right? That's the FCC requirement that if customers change phone companies, the company has to let them keep their phone numbers. Well, sort of. The key to the phrase is not “portability”; it's “local.” If a person moves to another city, he or she can slide by with the same mobile phone number until he or she changes carriers.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 muddies the water even further, because it opened the doors to phone-company competition. Companies that specialize in providing phone services over the Internet will sometimes apply for numbers in rural area codes with the intention of using them to sell their services in other places. With free long distance the norm in this kind of operation, a customer in Los Angeles won't care if her Internet (VOIP) phone number is in 760. A company called Level 3 Communications, based in Virginia, controls at least 100,000 phone numbers in 760 this way.
Leucadia record-label owner Scott Chatfield, who designed the Keep760.org website that organized much of the protest over the 760 split, believes companies like Level 3 or Grand Central, which offers a service in which a single phone number will make all of a customer's phones ring, are the future.
“Private industry is leading government on this,” Chatfield said.
That pretty much has to be true, because the government isn't changing a thing. NANPA's Cocke said there's simply no movement within NANPA or the FCC to reorganize phone numbers along non-geographic lines. But other government officials are catching the trend. Assemblymember Martin Garrick and Timothy Simon, the one PUC commissioner who voted against the area-code split and for an overlay, basically see geographic phone numbers as obsolete.
“I firmly believe we're becoming a 10-digit dialing society,” Simon said. “Many of us dial out of our phone books and our devices. Because of our emerging style of dialing numbers, I don't feel that it's good public policy to take phone numbers away from people. They're becoming more like social-security numbers.”
Simon hopes he can convince his fellow commissioners to switch from a split of 760 to an overlay. And he thinks this could be the last time this controversy ever happens.
“I think,” he said, “this will be the last geographic split in California.”