California Wants FCC to OK New Area Codes

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California will join the ranks of states seeking Federal Communications Commission permission to create technology-specific area codes.

The state's legislature has approved a bill asking the California Public Utilities Commission to ask the federal authority to approve such a scheme, which is designed to slow area-code exhaustion.

This change in policy would be good for incumbent telephone companies and cable competitors, as it would create new overlay area codes for mobile phones, pagers, data lines and other nonvoice services.

Statistical research has cited the proliferation of such devices as the cause of the rapid exhaustion of current area codes.

California is examining a variety of solutions to free up telephone numbers. Recent area-code splits have resulted in protests by local governments, which lobbied fiercely to retain "old" area codes rather than be moved to new exchanges where even local calls require dialing 11 digits.

Within the past decade, the main 213 area code for core Los Angeles was split to include a 310 designation for the San Fernando Valley area of the community. Now that area must be split, too.

A report for the PUC noted that prefixes, referred to as NXX codes, are distributed to the state's 200 licensed telephony competitors in 10,000-number blocks. Periodic lotteries are held among contenders for the blocks, which get 10,000 prefixes whether they intend to serve a handful of customers or an entire area code.

Based on the old format, only 15 blocks remain for distribution for potential 310 telephony competitors such as AT & T Broadband.

The new bill, sponsored by state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach), would set up area-code overlays so mobile phones and the like would use the new area codes and those devices could make local calls dialing seven digits. The overlays would be utilized in communities where the code is near exhaustion, despite conservation.

The bill, which backers expect Gov. Gray Davis to sign, faces a hurdle in the form of the FCC. The commission currently has an order in force that prohibits state utility regulators from creating technology-specific schemes, based on the opinion that they are anti-competitive. But several states are clamoring for reconsideration.

California regulators have made it clear that an overlay would be a last resort.

Also under consideration are conservation methods, such as dropping the NXX assignment to 1,000 numbers or lowering the out-of-service period between users of the same telephone number from 90 days to 30 days.

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