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New Florida area code sparks controversy
Telephony / October 9, 1995

By Larry Luxner

Fast-growing Florida -- which for decades made do with only three area codes and only reluctantly added a fourth code for the Orlando area in 1990 -- will suddenly become a seven-code state by year's end, thanks to implementation of new interchangeable codes in Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale and Gainesville.

Yet the changes haven't been without controversy -- particularly in Broward County, where more than a million customers will be required to switch from 305 to 954 between now and Aug. 1, 1996.

The unpopular switch has upset Broward businesses worried that long-distance and overseas callers won't be able to reach them because their equipment may not be programmed to recognize 954 as an area code.

At least one Broward businessman, Chacko Zachariah, has sued the Florida Public Service Commission to stop BellSouth from implementing 954, charging that the PSC acted outside its authority last August when it approved the split.

"Our Broward County, which is a blooming oasis, will be turned into a desert, an economic wasteland, a Third World town and take us into Depression," claimed the lawsuit, filed last month in Broward Circuit Court.

Nevertheless, Fort Lauderdale attorney Glen Stankee, who represents the Broward Economic Development Council, the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce and the Pompano Beach Chamber of Commerce, said he's negotiated an agreement with Southern Bell that will allow Broward businesses to keep 305 numbers until problems with the new interchangeable codes are resolved.

"It will provide very low-cost call forwarding from Dade County so that any Broward business feeling the need to retain a 305 number will be able to do so," Stankee told Telephony. "BellSouth will waive all installation charges, toll chargess and usage fees, and will charge only one flat rate of $12 a month. Any business can acquire up to two lines for call-forwarding purposes. It's intended to get them through the tough period."

Stankee said the relief plan is tailored after one used in western Washington state, one of the nation's first regions to get an interchangeable area code.

Yet unlike Maryland, where that state's PSC has recommended an overlay code to relieve congestion in the Baltimore area, the Florida PSC voted 3-2 in favor of a geographic split, carving 954 out of the 305 territory along the Dade-Broward county line.

According to Stankee, "the PSC didn't go for an overlay because it felt overlay would have an adverse effect on competition among service providers. In Florida, the PSC is required to give top priority to competition, and the effect on customers is secondary."

On Jan. 1, the Florida PSC will open up basic local phone service to competition, allowing AT&T, MCI, Sprint and other companies to enter that market for the first time. Such companies generally view overlay plans as discriminatory, because it means their customers would get stuck with new area codes even though such codes indicate less-established businesses.

Florida's first interchangeable code, 941, went into effect earlier this year in the Sarasota/Fort Myers area to relieve congestion in the 813 area code. The second, 954, took effect Sept. 11. The third, 352, is designed to relieve congestion in the Gainesville area, with the "permissive period" lasting from Dec. 3, 1995, to May 20, 1996 (during which time customers may dial either 352 or 904). After May 20, the 352 code becomes mandatory.

Said Stankee: "With each area code that converts, the need for [a negotiated plan] becomes less and less. In the course of straightening out their problems, a lot of our problems have been straightened out as well."

Paul Kourapas, an official of Teleport Communications Group in New York, said the development of number portability could ease the number shortage once and for all.

"Nationwide, the utilization rate of the North American Numbering Plan is only 25%, yet we're having all these number shortages," he said. "Portability will allow us to get a much higher utilization rate so numbers wouldn't have to be assigned in blocks of 10,000, but maybe in blocks of 100. If we develop that, we'll go a long way toward conserving telephone numbers."

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