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Polis Report

Number Games

By Michael Learmonth

The promise of the telecommunications revolution is infinite access to information for everyone. There's just one problem. The current seven-digit­ plus-area-code dialing system gives us a supply of telephone numbers that is painfully finite, and dwindling fast.

In 1998, the 408 area code--which today stretches from Sunnyvale to Big Sur--will split, making Santa Cruz and everything south of Gilroy an 11-digit dial to the new 831 area code.

But this, like all area code splits, is a Band-Aid solution. Bruce Bennett, Pac Bell's director of code administration, says that while the new 831 should last a good 25 years, 408 will have to split again in five years, in 2002.

The problem, Bennett says, is the explosion of cellular phones, pagers and new local phone companies, as well as Internet service providers, ATMs, expanding businesses and homes scrambling for the remaining supply.

Each area code can handle 7.9 million phone numbers. That's 792 prefixes with about 10,000 phone numbers each. In 1993, 22 prefixes in 408 were gobbled up. In 1994, 36 were used and in 1995, another 66--60 percent of which were for cell phones and pagers. The cell phone and pager boom died down in 1996, but with local phone competition beginning, another 96 prefixes
disappeared.

The long-term solution, says Pac Bell, is to "overlay" area codes, so high-demand areas such as Silicon Valley could have several on top of one another. The California Public Utilities Commission prohibits "overlays" until the year 2000. They also want to make phone numbers portable anywhere in the country. That way, a phone number could become as personal as, say, a Social Security number (gasp!), and the system of codes corresponding to areas will become obsolete.

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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