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Friday, January 27, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some Not Quite On Line With 360 Area Code -- Bugs Being Worked Out With Private Systems

Less than 2 weeks old, the country's newest telephone area code - 360, which covers much of Western Washington - has thrown many long-distance phone companies and thousands of private telephone systems for a loop.

Many callers throughout the country have been unable to complete calls by dialing 1-360 and have had to revert to using the 206 area code, which still works to reach any phone in Western Washington.

US West Communications says most of the problems with 360 should be ironed out soon.

The problems, which surfaced shortly after the new area code was activated Jan. 15, stem from the fact that 360 is the first area code in North America that doesn't have a "0" or a "1" as its middle digit. That change has overturned 40-year-old rules governing telephone numbers, and some private switching systems have not been updated to reflect new rules that allow for more combinations of numbers.

The problem has not affected most callers who dial using a simple telephone connected directly to a local telephone system.

But many businesses and institutions have PBX (private branch exchange) systems that have been programmed to "interpret" phone calls before they are passed to the outside telephone network. This lets those systems direct calls to various long-distance or local companies to get the lowest rates.

To understand the problem, imagine you want to reach the headquarters of Olympic National Park in Port Angeles, the local

number for which is 452-4501.

Dialing from a home phone, 1-360-452-4501 gets you through every time, because every digit you dial goes directly to the phone network, which knows what that string of numbers means.

But if you dial that combination on a phone hooked to a PBX system, your call may not ever reach the phone network. If that PBX system is in Western Washington, it may stop paying attention as soon as it receives 1-360-452-4, interpreting that as an improper attempt to dial a long-distance call. The string is "improper" because in Western Washington an area code must be dialed for all long-distance calls. (Some other area codes do not have that restriction.)

In this case, the PBX system would respond with an error tone or message that might ask you to "please check the number and dial again."

However, more basic PBX systems simply pass the digits you dial straight to the outside network. In that case, your call would go through.

The problem surfaced in other parts of the country last week at some smaller telephone companies that had not updated their own switches to recognize 360 as an area code.

Harry Grandstrom, media relations manager in Seattle for US West Communications, said it's impossible to know how many calls to 360 were rejected, but he said most calls went through without a hitch.

Every local and long-distance telephone company in North America was notified months ago about the new area code, but some neglected to make the necessary changes in time, he said.

Getting the word to all operators of PBX systems is more difficult, but most such systems are serviced by outside companies that keep up on such changes.

"This is one of the main reasons we have this transition period," he said. Until May 21, all Western Washington phone numbers can still be reached by dialing area code 206, he said.

After May 21, the new area code will be required to reach any Western Washington telephone number outside the Tacoma-Seattle-Everett area.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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