Among its many responsibilities, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is charged with regulating telephone numbering in California, specifically including adding new area codes. However, in the last year or so, the CPUC has been shockingly derelict in those duties. Only today () they finally announced the 209 & 350 area code overlay, months late. Meanwhile, they continue to dither and dilly-dally in the matter of area code 707. This issue mainly affects the people of the 209 and 707 area codes, but the abject dereliction of duty should be of concern to all Californians.
NANPA, the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, is the federal contractor that administers area codes and other telephone numbering issues in the United States. NANPA gives out new area codes as needed, but delegates to the individual states the responsibility of determining the details, including the timing of the new area code and whether it is an area code split or an overlay. That said, every area code added in the United States since 2007 has been an overlay, so “split or overlay” is now a non-issue. When an area code is nearing “exhaust” (running out of blocks of numbers to hand out to telephone service providers (TSPs)), NANPA, in coordination with the TSPs, petitions the state PUC/equivalent to approve the details of the overlay plan.
When an area code “exhausts,” that means that there are no more prefixes (blocks of 10,000 telephone numbers) available to give out to TSPs. Most TSPs, except for brand-new entrants, will have an inventory of smaller blocks of numbers within prefixes that have already been assigned, but they may run out of numbers in a particular rate center (city or town). In particular, they may be unable to fill an order from a business for a large block of numbers, but eventually they might not be able to give you a number in your town for your shiny new iPhone. You will have to either use a different TSP, wait for the overlay so your chosen TSP has numbers in your area, or settle for a number from some other town, hopefully reasonably nearby, hopefully a local call for those few remaining neighbors without unlimited long distance.
Communities in area code 209: Modesto, Stockton, Galt, Ione, Livingston, Lodi, Los Banos, Manteca, Merced, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Tracy, Tuolomne Meadows, Turlock, Yosemite N.P.
Communities in area code 707: Santa Rosa, Vallejo, Eureka, Annapolis, Arcata, Asti, Benicia, Bodega Bay, Boyes Hot Springs, Calistoga, Clearlake, Cotati, Crescent City, Dixon, Fairfield, Ferndale, Fort Bragg, Geyserville, Gualala, Guerneville, Healdsburg, Hopland, Lakeport, Middletown, Napa, Orick, Petaluma, Petrolia, Rohnert Park, St. Helena, Sonoma, Suisun City, Tomales, Ukiah, Vacaville, Willits, Yorkville, Yountville
Area Code 209 (Central Valley)
On , NANPA filed a petition with the CPUC, asking for approval of an overlay for area code 209. The expected exhaust date for 209 had just jumped forward by an entire year, from to , so the proverbial clock was ticking loudly. The petition requested that the CPUC issue a final decision no later than , in order to allow for an orderly introduction of the new area code around .
Finally, on , the CPUC announced a telephonic prehearing conference, the first of multiple steps towards formally approving the petition, to be held on — already three days past the requested date for a final decision. On , AT&T and other California TSPs filed an updated petition, stressing the urgent need for a final decision no later than , in order to allow for an effective date of . Area code 209 was projected to run out of numbers by the end of 2022, but there is another factor pressing the case. Many TSPs institute a “winter holiday network freeze” to avoid possible disruptions during November and December.
On , again breezing right past teh deadline, the CPUC announced a proposed decision, approving the obvious only feasible option, but noted that the earliest possible date for a final decision was . In the intervening four months, the CPUC was literally arguing about whether the overlay should be implemented on a 6-month timeline or 9 months. There were absolutely no other substantive questions at issue. No material issues of fact, law, or policy, whatsoever. Had the CPUC simply said at the beginning, “No, it has to be 9 months,” that would have been better than arguing for four months. It was analogous to the fire department waiting hours to respond to a fire because they were arguing about whether to send two fire trucks or three.
On , the CPUC approved [MS-Word format] the proposed decision. However, they didn’t reconcile the contradictory schedule milestones, which assumed that the process would start by . In essence, the CPUC ordered the industry to implement the overlay “before it’s too late.”
On , NANPA announced the final schedule: the 209 & 350 overlay will be implemented on , the Monday immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, right smack in the middle of the winter holiday network freeze, significantly increasing the risk of disruptions to the TSPs and to end-users.
All of this mess could have been avoided very easily, had the CPUC simply done its job in a timely manner.
Area Code 707 (north coast)
That brings me to the second case. On , just a week after the 209 petition, NANPA filed a petition asking the CPUC to approve, no later than , an overlay of area code 707, to take effect no later than , based on the projection that 707 would exhaust in .
On , the CPUC held a webcast (complete with a PowerPoint presentation, all in lieu of a public meeting) to inform the public about the proceeding. However, that is to date the only action the CPUC has taken in this matter. There is not even a publicly available docket for the proceeding, much less a proposed decision or any indication of when a final decision might be rendered.
In the mean time, the estimate for the exhaust of 707 has advanced by 9 months, meaning that 707 will run out of numbers in the .
As in the case of area code 209, there are again absolutely no material issues of fact, law, or policy involved. The CPUC will (when it finally gets around to doing its job!) order a general-services overlay of area code 369 on area code 707. The only open question is how much disruption the CPUC’s inexplicable delays will cause to businesses and residents of the north coast area if 707 reaches exhaust while the CPUC is still dithering. (Such a situation would be almost without precedent in the 75-year history of U.S. area codes, and would require draconian rationing measures to forestall calamity.)
Update: CPUC took action
On , the CPUC announced that the 707 &369 overlay will happen in early 2023, although they did not provide the exact date. The docket was there on the website, it just wasn’t linked from the landing page for information about 707. Disaster averted, but still a bewildering display of bureaucratic ineptness.
Dereliction of Duty
NANPA and the California TSPs gave the CPUC more than ample time to render a decision in a timely and efficient manner, but the CPUC responded with delay, delay, delay, and yet more delay. It is nothing short of dereliction of duty, particularly when there were literally zero impediments to expeditious action. NANPA and the TSPs presented a consensus proposal in each case, having ruled out all alternative strategies to avert exhaust. The CPUC only needed to say, “Good, yes, go ahead,” and be done with it.
These specific cases primarily affect the residents of the 209 and 707 area codes, but the issue of abject dereliction by a state agency should concern all Californians. At least half a dozen more California area codes will exhaust within the next five years, so the CPUC needs to get its act together right now.