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Thursday, April 3, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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7-Digit Phone Number No Longer Enough -- Some Free Local Calls Will Require You Dial 10 Numerals

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Ready for finger aerobics? Ten-digit dialing is about to become reality.

Thanks to the same running-out-of-numbers game that two years ago prompted Western Washington's split into two area codes, Puget Sound residents must brace themselves late this month for two more numeric newcomers: 253 and 425.

The introduction of two new area codes results from the continuing onslaught of second lines for faxes, modems, pagers, cellular phones and teenagers. Adding just one new area code probably wouldn't have lasted until the turn of the century, according to industry projections.

So starting April 27, more than a million residential and business lines in the 206 area code will be transferred to one of the new codes.

Don't panic, though. April 27 marks the start of a seven-month transition period the phone company dubs "permissive dialing." That means you can continue to dial as before.

10 digits on local calls

Beginning Nov. 16, however, to get through to the affected areas - stretching north-south from Everett to the Pierce/Thurston County line, and east-west from Snoqualmie Pass to the Key Peninsula - you will have to dial the new area code ahead of the seven-digit number.

The change won't cost you anything more than three extra finger strokes. In other words, if a call was local before the switch, it will remain local afterward. That's why you won't have to dial "1" first, simply the three numbers. In fact, the phone companies say your call will be blocked if you dial "1" in front of a local, 10-digit number. You'll continue to need to dial "1" first for long-distance calls.

If you think this region is being picked on, consider this: The greater Los Angeles area has five area codes, and it's not clear whether they will suffice by 2000. By contrast, 253 and 425 are expected to see the greater Seattle area into 2006.

To educate people about the change, US West Communications and GTE, the two major carriers for the affected areas, plan a media blitz starting next week, including television, radio and print ads, as well as information that will be included with customer-billing statements.

How we got into this prefix

We have only ourselves to blame for the overload driving the continued Balkanization of 206. Chuck Hanson, a forecaster for GTE, said that seven out of 10 residential-line installations in 1996 were for second lines, representing a 117 percent increase over 1995.

US West's George Chappell said the carrier has been steadily adding new prefixes in the 206 area; 78 new ones were added in 1995, 92 last year and 55 so far this year.

The communications demands of home users, as well as business customers such as Microsoft, Nintendo and Boeing, are consuming available numbers. Technology limits number assignments to 10,000 per prefix inside an area code, meaning the phone companies are running out of combinations.

"We're contributing to the growth, so we understand it's a necessity," said Kristen Wappler, spokeswoman for Puget Sound Energy, which will join the 425 area code. She estimated labor costs at $10,000 to reprogram the company's lines, not counting an additional, unknown sum to change business cards and stationery.

Microsoft, with 30,000 affected phone numbers, will revise published material so that the new numbers accompany products that reach the market once the change takes effect, a spokesman said. Like other companies, Microsoft will take advantage of the lead time to use up business cards and stationery printed with the 206 area code.

"People are a little bit nervous about (the changeover)," said Sarah Skoglund, president of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. The seven-month grace period before the change becomes "officially official" should be sufficient time for businesses to prepare, she said.

She also thinks the relatively recent introduction of area code 360 will help people get over their apprehension. "It's kind of a fear-based thing," she said. "A `what if people can't find me? What if my number gets lost?' kind of phenomenon. . . .

"One thing I haven't heard is, `Why are they doing this?' . . . This is what you get with high-tech advances."

How area codes get picked

But what's happening around here is hardly unique, as Los Angeles' experience illustrates. Since Jan. 1, 1995, 25 new area codes (including 360) have been implemented, and 42 more (including 253 and 425) are pending in the area the industry calls World Zone 1, covering Canada, the United States, most of the Caribbean, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Jack Ott, US West's Denver-based numbering plan administrator for 14 Western states, including Washington, said ground work for the Puget Sound-area change was laid about five years ago, when the industry recognized that 206 needed additional relief.

The process that led to 425 and 253, Ott recalled, involved searching for unused prefixes in area codes 206, 509 and 503. For technical reasons, the phone companies did not want to duplicate area codes and prefixes - a number such as (464) 464-1234, for instance.

The state Utility and Transportation Commission then held public hearings. The city of Des Moines made a compelling case for remaining inside 206 instead of joining 253 - and retained 206 status.

Why faxes aren't a different code

Also, the industry hired a pollster to gauge public preferences regarding different ways of relieving the pressure on 206. A majority of both residential and business respondents favored the three-way split over an "overlay" approach, which would have introduced a single new area code over the entire area served by 206. Under that scenario, existing customers would have retained their 206 numbers, with new area code numbers assigned for new lines.

Some folks in Everett and on the Eastside argued early on that they should retain 206 and that Seattle should be the one to change.

"Because of our growth numbers and line count and the customers we serve -the Microsofts and Nintendos that deal with businesses internationally - we felt we had a pretty good argument for wanting to retain 206," recalled Melissa Barren, spokeswoman for GTE. "We didn't want to roll over and assume that the Seattle area would get it."

In the final analysis, it was decided that Seattle would retain 206 because of the greater concentration of businesses within the Seattle core, she said. "Once that decision was made, we accepted it." ----------------------------------------------------------------- What a hassle

Dialing 10 numbers may be simple enough, but there are some less-obvious ways that new area codes will affect phone use. Here are a few:

-- Internet users will need to reconfigure their dial-up accounts if the modem's phone number has an area code different from the service-provider number being dialed.

-- Features such as speed dialing and call forwarding will require reprogramming for calls placed into the new area codes.

-- Notify your alarm-monitoring company if you have a new area code.

For more information, call the free hotline number: 1-888-97-SPLIT.

Published Correction Date: 04/04/97 - In This Story, Gte Spokeswoman Melissa Barran's Last Name Was Misspelled.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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