A record 14 telephone area codes are slated to change this year in North America as the communications industry struggles to cope with phone number gridlock spawned by an explosion of fax machines, cellular phones and other communications devices.
Callers from California to Bermuda will face a confusing array of non-traditional three-digit area codes. Some will not have the usual "0" or "1" as the middle number, and a few -- like the proposed 562 area code in the 310 dialing area covering western Los Angeles County -- will overlay existing codes and thus will not have a distinct geographic identity.
Jeffrey Gluck, a spokesman for Nynex, said Western New York customers will see little change. No new area codes are anticipated, and the state is decades away from running short of new telephone number combinations. Some businesses with their own internal exchange systems may be affected, he said, but their equipment can be reprogrammed to keep up with the changes.
However, Gluck said the demand for new telephone lines will bring about changes in time, maybe 10 to 20 years down the road.
"There is a lot of debate in the industry as to how the whole system will be able to handle it," he said.
Elsewhere, the changeovers will require tens of millions more Americans to dial 11 digits for many of their local calls. And the controversial overlay area codes eventually could saddle residents with different area codes for telephones, fax machines and voice lines at the same location.
The latest numbering upheaval, which began in January when western Washington state supplemented its 206 area code with a new 360 code, is the result of massive telephone number depletion. Each three-digit area code can support about 7.8 million seven-digit phone numbers. But popular communications services, like cellular phones, pagers and mobile radio phones, are gobbling up more than 8,000 new telephone numbers a day.
Rapid growth in home offices and personal computers -- with their attendant fax machines and communications modems -- is also fueling demand for extra phone lines. About 14 percent of Pacific Bell's residential customers now have two phone lines -- a number that has risen sharply in the past five years.
Though the addition of 640 potential new area codes using middle digits other than 0 or 1 will give the industry some breathing room, demand for new numbers will eventually force the industry to rethink the nearly century-old dialing distinction between local and long distance calls.
Experts say callers everywhere may soon be required to dial at least 11 digits to reach anyone -- whether long distance or local -- or the industry may have to introduce so-called "portable" exchanges that are assigned to an individual, much like a social security number and remain with the person no matter where he or she is located.