February 26, 1999
The Kennedy Space Center
A New Area Code: 3-2-1, as in Blast Off
By STEPHANIE N. MEHTA
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET
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
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
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
"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
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