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February 26, 1999 [The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition]

The Kennedy Space Center Acquires
A New Area Code: 3-2-1, as in Blast Off


Robert Osband is counting down the days until Brevard County, Fla., gets a new area code.

That's because Mr. Osband, a space-program buff, successfully lobbied for the nation's first "vanity" area code for the communities surrounding the Kennedy Space Center. The digits: 3-2-1.

The new number, which is to be launched later this year, has been embraced by central Florida residents and business owners, despite certain inconveniences , like having to print up new business cards. "We were all secretly rooting for this new area code," says Bruce Buckingham, in a familiar, authoritative voice. Mr. Buckingham, a spokesman for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, does the countdowns for the Space Shuttle.

Area codes have always been status symbols of sorts. The numbering plan was created by AT&T Corp. in the 1940s as an internal numbering system to help telephone operators route long-distance calls, according to Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T's corporate historian. Later, the phone giant used the system to allow customers to make long-distance calls without operator assistance.

The cities that got the most calls got the best digits. New York City was given 212 because that was the easiest, fastest code to dial on an old rotary phone. Similarly, Los Angeles ended up with the easy-to-spin 213. Others were consigned to the telephone equivalent of Siberia: Alaskans, for example, had to live with 907.

AT&T successfully oversaw the nation's area codes until the company was broken up by the Justice Department in 1984. The task then shifted to Bellcore, a research-and-development outfit then owned by the Baby Bells. As new competitors began to transform the phone industry, however, some grew increasingly edgy over the role of the local phone companies in the delegation of new area codes.

Eventually the process was opened up to competitive bidding. Last year, a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp., the defense contractor, became the administrator of the North American Numbering Plan.

It's not as easy as 1-2-3.

The dozens of local telephone companies that have entered the fray since the telecommunications industry was deregulated in 1996 complicate things. Every competitor, no matter how small, is entitled to request telephone numbers for its customers, starting with a minimum block of 10,000 seven-digit numbers.

One result is a lot of new area codes, dividing the country into ever narrower slices. Last year, 27 new area codes were assigned in North America, including new toll-free codes; so far this year, five new area codes have been assigned. Each area code can accommodate 7.92 million seven-digit phone numbers.

For many suburbanites, a new area code means they can no longer delude themselves or fool other people, though some try. Elizabeth O'Toole of Wilmette, Ill., a Chicago suburb, says her husband retains a cell phone with downtown's 312 area code as a way of clinging to their days of city living.

"You know you're very urbane if you have 312," quips Ms. O'Toole. "If you're 847, forget about it." Wilmette is 847.

An area code is an identification badge. For example, rural residents of northern Virginia were pleased to be assigned a new area code, 540, that distinguishes them from the beltway-bound city slickers of Alexandria and Arlington, who retained the 703 area code.

Cultural references are ubiquitous. In the Gen-X movie "Swingers," the protagonist, a struggling comedian who moves to Los Angeles from New York, finally works up the nerve to ask a young woman for her telephone number. "818?" asks one of his hipster cronies, referring to the area code of the Valley. His reply, "310," elicits grunts and nods of approval from his friends. The 818 area code includes Burbank, which is in the San Fernando Valley, while the 310 area code includes Beverly Hills.

Lockheed Martin and the phone companies have tried to ease some the pain associated with new phone numbers. The introduction of the 718 area code in 1985 for residents of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island was memorably traumatic to many New Yorkers and abetted Manhattan snobbery because the island retained the 212 area code that had embraced the whole city. The 212 code is once again under attack, but local phone company Bell Atlantic Corp. this time is being subtle about it. The island won't be divided up and set against itself; rather, new customers, starting in July, will be assigned the area code 646.

Whether this will offer comfort remains to be seen. In an episode of the now-departed television show "Seinfeld," Elaine, one of the main characters, tries to give her new phone number with the "646" area code to a would-be suitor.

He balks. "It's a new area code," she insists.

"What area?" he replies. "New Jersey?"

Sometimes an area code can be a badge of honor. Rap-rock fusion artists 2 Skinnee J's pay homage to affordable Brooklyn living in "(718)": "I spent my rent so I vent/ across the bridges to emigrate/ from 212/ to 718." Jamie Denton, an actor who lives in Chatsworth, Calif., says he seeks out businesses and services in the 818 area code. "If it is 310 or 213, it just means I have to drive an hour to get there."

In the case of Florida's Brevard County, the 321 "blast off" area code had already been reserved for some other, unspecified part of North America. But after listening to pleas that the Brevard County area is sometimes known as the Space Coast, the area-code gatekeepers were won over. "People were clearly emotionally involved in wanting this area code," says Ron Connors, director of the numbering plan for Lockheed Martin.

Still, he doesn't want to create a sort of area-code envy. "This was a very special situation," he says. "I shudder to think what the consequences would be if people thought some numbers are more desirable than others."

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