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Saturday, Sep 23, 2023


SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Just two years after warding off an attempt to cut Burbank and Glendale out of the 818 area code, the San Fernando Valley is facing yet another area-code split. The 818 area code will run out of telephone numbers by the first quarter of 2001. As a result, the California Public Utilities Commission, along with Lockheed Martin IMS, the company that manages the assignment of area codes, have begun work on a plan to add a second area code to the region. The commission will consider whether to break off a portion of the Valley into a new area code or to overlay a second code. The overlay solution would require callers to dial the area code for every call made within the Valley even from one location in the 818 area to another. Civic leaders argue that dividing the Valley into two area codes could undermine the Valley’s political clout at a time when the region is seeking more autonomy from the city of Los Angeles. “I think it would be bad psychologically,” said Walter Prince, a director of the Northridge Chamber of Commerce and community activist. “This is the one thing we’ve got in common.” The Valley’s large population and economic diversity already makes it difficult for civic and business leaders to present a united front in their dealings with City Hall. Splitting the Valley into two area codes, the argument goes, would further dilute those efforts by creating another element of difference at a time when work is underway to establish separate agencies to oversee schools and transit in the region, as well as effect charter reform. “We have to try to look at ways to stabilize the process,” said Bob Scott, vice chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, which has begun to look at the issue. “People are losing their identity. Companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on stationery. I don’t think it has a political implication, but it has an economic impact.” The growth of fax machines, the Internet, cellular phones and other forms of telecommunications has created a sharp increase in the demand for phone numbers. Each area code can accommodate 792 prefixes (the first three digits in a phone number); each prefix, in turn, generates 10,000 phone numbers. When those are exhausted, new area codes must be added to provide new customers with service and accommodate the expanded needs of existing customers. About 140 prefixes, or 1.4 million telephone numbers, remain available to be assigned in the 818 area code. But because the demand far exceeds the supply of numbers, the California Public Utilities Commission has had to ration phone numbers, said Risa Hernandez, a regulatory analyst for the CPUC. Each month the commission holds a lottery to determine which telephone providers phone, cell or pager companies will get new prefixes. In the 818 code, seven prefixes are distributed each month, so even with the rationing, the numbers will be used up by the first quarter of 2001. “California is using the most area codes in the nation because of its size and the high demand for telecommunications services,” Hernandez said. So far at least, the agency has offered only two alternatives as a permanent solution: either splitting off a portion of the geographic area into a new area code, or overlaying a second area code across the entire area. In an overlay, all new service requests are assigned a new area code. Businesses would keep their 818 area code for existing services, but would have to use the new code if they wanted to add, say, a new fax machine or modem line. Though the overlay method has been used less frequently than the split, some in the Valley see it as a less onerous option for businesses. “Our preference is to stay unchanged or have an overlay,” said Stephen Helvey, assistant city manager for Burbank. “If we can save our businesses $100,000, that’s our primary issue.” The initial plan to split the 818 area code would have divided Burbank so that a portion of the city would have remained in the 818 area code while another piece went into the newly created 626 area code. Burbank, along with Glendale, fought to retain the 818 area code and ultimately succeeded. The 626 area code eventually was assigned predominantly to the San Gabriel Valley. Richard Close, chairman of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, which is leading a drive to study the feasibility of separate cityhood for the San Fernando Valley, thinks a random split in the Valley could have an adverse effect on the group’s efforts. Conversely, he added, a division based on the geographic boundaries VOTE has demarcated for an eventual independent city could enhance the Valley’s secession movement. The problem is, cities are not always able to influence where the boundaries are drawn. West Hollywood was split virtually down the middle when the 310 area code was introduced, so that a portion of that city went to 310 while the rest remained in 213. “When there’s a split, the split boundaries don’t necessarily conform to geographic boundaries, so there’s not any way to get assurance that, for instance, certain communities would or would not be included together,” said Kevin Tamaki, director of external affairs at Pacific Bell and co-chair of the telecommunications and technology committee of VICA. A plan to add a new area code is first devised by an advisory group of telecommunications providers under the oversight of the area code administrator, Lockheed Martin. Beginning in November, the group will present its plan at public hearings, and community groups then have the opportunity to petition the CPUC for changes. “The Public Utilities Commission can modify it or approve it as is,” said Joanne Edelman, senior code administrator for Lockheed Martin. To date, Edelman said, the overlay option has been chosen in just seven areas across the country largely because overlays require everyone in the two area codes to dial 10 numbers, a three-digit area code and a seven-digit phone number, even if they are calling within the same area code. But others point out that with the widespread use of cell phones and pagers, which often carry different area codes, most already have grown accustomed to dialing 10 digits. “I’m not sure dialing 10 digits is as big a deal with people, and you can preprogram the numbers,” said Bill Allen, president of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, who added that the group has not yet polled its members on the issue. Scott said VICA hopes to persuade the CPUC to explore other alternatives, such as recapturing numbers in the 818 area code which have been assigned to businesses but are not in use; apportioning new area codes so that businesses can retain the 818 code while residents adopt a new one; or using a new area code for specified services, such as cell phones. “I think people are looking for a better answer and the notion that somehow disrupting existing service is better than coming up with new solutions is misguided,” said Scott. “What is the alternative?” asked David Fleming, an attorney and leading Valley businessman. “In one respect, technology is making life so much better, that’s just the price we have to pay for it. And I’d rather pay that price than not have it.”

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