Two alternatives for adding a new telephone area code to the 415 region were presented Thursday to more than 40 people at an afternoon meeting in San Rafael.
Maps of Marin and San Francisco counties lined the front of the San Rafael City Hall council chambers as Marin residents listened to a presentation on the need for a new 628 area code.
Katherine Morehouse, a public utilities analyst for the California Public Utilities Commission, said the state is down to a limited amount of 415 numbers.
"The 415 prefixes are anticipated to be all assigned by the third quarter of 2015," Morehouse said.
The problem is not that the area is running out of phone numbers, but that it's running out of prefixes -- the three digits that come after an area code. Morehouse said there are only 61 more prefix combinations available to new customers in the 415 region.
"A new area code will supply the people of San Francisco and Marin with 784 new prefixes," Morehouse said.
Every prefix is assigned to a specific rate center, of which there are 14 in the 415 area code. Prefixes may only be used for phone services in that rate center's jurisdiction, per the Federal Communications Commission's rules, and can't be transferred to other areas.
Joe Cocke, senior relief planner for the North America Numbering Plan Administration, said there are two options for adding the new 628 area code to the region -- either a geographic split or an overlay.
Under a split, part of the region would retain the 415, while others would be assigned the new 628 area code. The maps presented Thursday show the split taking place in San Francisco County, making Marin and part of San Francisco one area code and the other half of San Francisco another area code.
"No decision has been made as to which one would keep the 415 area code," Cocke said.
The problem with a split is that it's an alternative that doesn't meet industry standards. Cocke said it would have to be referred by the utilities commission to the FCC for approval.
"The last split done nationally was in New Mexico in 2007," Cocke said.
The other option is an overlay, where the new area code would be "laid over" the existing area code and given only to new phone numbers. Cocke said there are 60 overlays throughout the United States. Approval of the 628 area code as an overlay would be the sixth in the state.
The North American Numbering Plan Administration -- a neutral, third-party area code relief planner for the state -- has already recommended the utilities commission overlay the new area code.
Mill Valley resident Richard Rider said he prefers an overlay, for the sake of his security systems business.
"Some of the older equipment we'd have to reprogram," Rider said about a split system. "It could take us a year and a half to make all of the changes."
Daniel Escalzo, executive director of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, said he prefers whichever option has the least economic impact on businesses.
"We're still in a fragile economy," Escalzo said.
David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, said he participated in similar discussions about the need for a new area code more than a decade ago. He said the FCC's rules are "moronic" and in need of adjustment.
"I'm alarmed there haven't been fixes created to resolve these issues," Schonbrunn said. "I'm confident there are engineering solutions."
In 1998, a push to overlay the 628 area code on the existing 415 area code took place, but was abandoned when the public and state Legislature expressed concern about the change.
Morehouse said the utilities commission has been able to delay the need for the new area code by conserving numbers, but now needs the 628 area code.
She said once all public comments have been gathered, she'll create a report for the state commission. Then Cocke's organization will make a recommendation in the next few months.
"It usually takes about six months for a decision," Morehouse said.
Once a decision is made, service providers will be notified and a public education campaign will begin.
Cocke said people will have to learn to dial "1" plus the area code for all the calls they make, even if they're dialing to a 415 area code from a 415 number. He said this will not affect the rate people pay.
"What is a local call now will remain a local call," Cocke said.
Calls will be transferred automatically for people during a "permissive period," which lasts for a few months. After that, people forgetting to dial the "1" and the area code will be sent to a pre-recorded message informing them of the change.
How to comment
Written comments on the new area code can be sent to the California Public Utilities Commission's Public Advisor's Office at 320 W. Fourth St., Suite 500, Los Angeles CA 90013, on the CPUC's website at www.cpuc.ca.gov, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.