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For Many, Area Codes Are Not Created Equal

As some in the Bay Area change from 415 to 650, the rest of the nation ponders: What's in a number?

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 1998



SAN FRANCISCO

Like book ends to the Digital Revolution, residents of New York and San Francisco, and all those in between, will have to get used to different telephone area codes this year.

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As of this past weekend, the nice roll-off-your-tongue sound of 415 for the San Francisco Bay area has a new companion: 650. And sometime this year, getting ahold of someone in Manhattan won't be as easy as remembering 212.

The area-code explosion of the past two years will continue in 1998, adding numerical complexities to communications within and to Denver, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as well as 10 other communities, including the Big Apple and Baghdad by the Bay. Here in the trenches, where many have spent the week reprogramming speed dials and calling familiar local numbers twice, it's a pain, but people are reluctantly getting used to it.

"It changes where we live, psychologically," says Rutgers (N.J.) communications professor James Katz, who used to live in the 201 area code, then 908, now 732. "The new numbers are taking away people's sense of place."

"It stinks," says one San Francisco professional who couldn't check her own voice mail Monday morning without dialing an area code - her residence had been assigned the 650 code.

"It's inconvenient. Now you have to dial these weird looking numbers, like I did this morning with 573 to Missouri," says Regina Costa of The Utility Reform Network, a watchdog group based here. "But basically, there isn't any choice."

Blame it on technology

It's all about living in the Information Age. There was a time when a human being patched together any long distance call. Automation brought area codes. There were 87 of them nationwide in 1947, compared with 193 today. New Jersey ushered in the era with 201, fitting a mold that required all codes to have either a one or a zero in the middle. Mr. Katz recalls the era almost wistfully: "There was something quite nice about 212, 202, those kinds of easy numbers."

A familiarity and status, too. The San Francisco Bay Area was well known nationally as 415, just as 212 was nearly synonymous with New York.

But time marches on. In the early 1990s, New York had to create a new area code for its burgeoning wireless phone market and San Francisco's East Bay brethren got booted from the 415 club. Then, in 1994 the biggest change of all: Those unfamiliar integers 2 through 9 took the middle position in new area codes. It allowed for an avalanche of sorely needed, but odd sounding area codes: 954 (Fort Lauderdale), 678 (Atlanta), and 972 (Dallas) to name a few.

A beeper bonanza

Driving the need for new area codes is the explosion, particularly over the past two years, in communication needs. Americans bought 15 million pagers in 1996, to accompany the 43 million cell phones already in use. Fax machines have become nearly as common as an office wastebasket. Some 13 percent of the adult population now cruises the Internet. And retail stores started making life easier with machines that required only a swipe of a credit card to pay the bill. What they all have in common is the need for a phone number.

California, for example, had accumulated 13 area codes through its first 50 years of long-distance dialing. During the next two, it will add another 10.

One thing the proliferation suggests is that people have an almost endless ability to memorize numbers. "My 10-year-old has to remember a pass code to eat lunch at school," says a Bell Atlantic official. "I think the rest of us will be fine with the new [Manhattan] area code."

Still, what's just inconvenient to some is downright spooky to others. When the southern California area code of 818 split, many Chinese objected. The number eight means good luck and prosperity in Chinese culture. The replacement code (626) had not one, but two sixes, a much more negative symbol. Still, the change went through.

Rose Breidenbaugh, North American Numbering Plan administrator for Lockheed Martin, IMS, which oversees the assigning of area codes in the US, is hopeful the worst is past. She anticipates that in the years ahead new entrants into the telecommunications industry will be able to gain customers from their competitors without having to change their phone numbers. The numbers will be portable, meaning they stay with the customer even when he or she moves to a new carrier.

But with the proliferation of home computers and other communication devices, some say technology's march will make life harder before it makes it easier. Warns Chris Kniestedt, spokesman for the California-Nevada Code Administration: "A lot of people in the industry are talking about needing 12-digits [instead of 10 today] by the year 2010. People know it's eventually going to happen."