Dialing up a difference

State agrees with woman’s solution to confusion over area code proliferation

By MIKE BENBOW

Herald Writer

Don’t tell Patricia Atkinson that one person can’t make a difference.

The Woodinville woman who became frustrated by area code confusion has persuaded state regulators to simplify the process, despite requests for delay from the telephone industry.

On Wednesday, the three-member Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission unanimously approved a proposal suggested by Atkinson that would allow permissive 11-digit dialing.

"I’m very happy about it and I hope it will make my life and many other lives a little easier to not have to keep redialing phone calls," Atkinson said.

What irked Atkinson was that it was impossible for her to figure out whether some numbers in her area code were a local or a long distance call. She’d dial the 11 digits of what she thought was a long-distance number only to get a recording telling her it wasn’t and directing her to hang up and redial with just 10 digits.

Why, she wondered, couldn’t she have the option of dialing 1 plus the 10-digit number and having the phone company put the call through the first time, charging her only if it truly was a long-distance call.

Atkinson broached her idea with a phone call to the commission’s staff about a year ago. In August, she wrote a more formal letter proposing the change. Wednesday she told her story at a public hearing in Olympia. And she prevailed on the spot.

"I’m very surprised and pleased with how quickly they made the decision — for action instead of just to study it, Atkinson said.

Commission spokesman Glenn Blackmon said a key issue was "the proposal wouldn’t make anybody worse off and would help some people."

Blackmon said the commissioners rejected the idea presented by some phone companies that the plan would increase the number of unwanted toll charges on customers’ bills.

"Even with this change, you have to dial 1 for a toll call," he said. "If you’re worried about a long distance call, don’t dial 1. They felt since that was in place, it would help a lot of areas with more than one area code in the same local calling area."

Snohomish County, which is split between the 425 and 360 area codes, is one of those areas. Things will get even more complicated in October 2001 when the new 564 area code will be layered on top, meaning there will be three area codes that could be either local or long distance.

Melissa Barran of Verizon, which serves Snohomish County and has its Northwest headquarters in Everett, said the company asked Wednesday for more time to find out what would be required technically to make the change, how much it would cost and how customers felt about the switch.

"There’s an assumption that customers want this and perhaps they do, but there was no data to support that," she said. "It’s not that we opposed it per se, but we felt it warranted some more discussion."

Barran said the company, which was formed with the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic, worries about the confusion the change could create.

"It does answer the question of convenience as far as not getting the recording," she said. "Customers need to know that if they choose to do that, there is a chance that they’re making a long distance call that they may be charged for."

The commission ordered that the change be made in the Seattle local calling area, which includes Edmonds, by Jan. 1. Phone companies have until the new area code takes effect, in October 2001, to have it up and running throughout the state.

Barran said the company doesn’t yet know when it will made the switch in Snohomish County.

For her part, Atkinson can’t wait.

But she does want to make sure that nobody winds up paying a toll charge they didn’t want because of what she initiated. Asked what more she’d like to say about her experience, she replied: "That 1 means long distance."

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