If you're not fighting the 424 overlay, you're supporting it

By Garrison Frost

By all accounts, newly elected 53rd District Assemblyman Ted Lieu is a good guy and a qualified leader. Although he hasn't been in office long enough to exercise any real power at the state level, he did try to make a mark in December by announcing that one of his top priorities was to restore billions in education funding that the governor removed to balance the state budget. That's a noble goal, but I would assume that just about every other member of the Assembly has said something to the same effect in the last few months. Lieu mentioned a number of issues in that December speech – LAX, energy efficient building, public transportation and infrastructure improvements among them – but notably missing from that list was an issue that directly affects his constituents, one that he might actually be able to make an impact on if he were to take some action. This issue is also notably missing from the Assemblyman's website, and repeated calls to his local office have netted no information about his stance on it.

I'm talking about the proposed 424 overlay area code.

Of course I'm not arguing that the area code is more important than improving education – it's not. Nor am I saying that the overlay is more important than the Medicare prescription drug fiasco, which Lieu has been trying to help his constituents with lately. And I am not implying that Lieu's silence on the overlay issue marks him as unique. Truth is, it doesn't, and that's the problem. As we approach July 26, the day all calls made in the 310 area code must include 11 digits (1+area code+number), and an Aug. 26 date for new 424 area codes numbers to be issued, practically no one is talking about it. This is in contrast to last summer, when a coalition that included State Sen. Debra Bowen, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, Congresswoman Jane Harman, the South Bay Cities Council of Governments and the South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce fought hard to keep the California Public Utilities Commission from approving the overlay. In making their case against the overlay, this coalition noted that the commission has never conducted an impartial accounting of how many numbers remain in the 310 area code, that no reasonable efforts have been made to protect the remaining numbers from waste, that the Federal Communications Commission has approved so-called technical overlays that would greatly reduce the inconvenience to the public, and that the commission is basing its entire decision on information from the telecommunications industry which would benefit financially from the overlay and has proven time and time again that it isn't particularly trustworthy on this issue. "For some time now, the PUC has been more interested in what the phone companies want instead of what's best for the people who pay the phone bills," Bowen said last summer. None of this opposition swayed the commission, which approved the overlay last August and has been planning the transition ever since.

Clearly, this overlay is bad policy. It hurts consumers and constitutes poor oversight of an industry that already gets way too much latitude from its government overseers. The only people this overlay serves are the industry giants who want to shape their market, regardless of how much it inconveniences the public. Unfortunately, the CPUC seems to feel that the public should be forced to suffer so that an industry can have an easier time marketing things to them. Moreover, it seems to feel that the public can be lied to and inconvenienced without any accountability. That's an outrage. And yet, even though the transition is approaching, one hears very little about it. Which is exactly what shouldn't be happening right now. Now is the time to fight this preposterous decision. The public will be incredibly angry in July when the 11-digit dialing begins, and rightfully the public will want it stopped. But it will be too late then. And no amount of town hall meetings will make things any better. Which is why silence right now plays right into the hands of the CPUC and the industry. Silence on the overlay now amounts to approval.

Even though I started this article by talking about one politician, Ted Lieu, I don't really blame him or any of our elected officials for this silence. These officials have lots of important things on their plate right now and aren't likely to pick up the ball on the overlay unless they start hearing it from the public. That's why Lieu right now is focusing on the Medicare prescription drug fiasco, and holding town hall meetings to help the public. And the public has other things on its mind: Iraq, health care, the Supreme Court, the Superbowl, surf trips, kids, work – all kinds of things. Clearly, the public won't have a chance to demonstrate its outrage until someone reminds them that this overlay is happening. This is really where the local press and local leadership have failed us. When this issue was being covered by the press back in 2005, the coverage was typically banal and tepid – just the sort of "he said, she said" journalism that creates the false impression that both sides are equal. Making this worse is that the South Bay media is particularly weak when it comes to informed opinion. The Daily Breeze doesn't take on local issues like it could and the weeklies lack the kind of editorial voice required in this instance.

At the same time, where are the public officials on this issue? Where is the South Bay Cities Council of Governments? Where are the local chambers of commerce? These are organizations that have shown time and time again the ability to direct the public's attention and change policy. And yet even though these groups were active last year on this year, they've gone silent now, and they're making a huge mistake.

Something that is particularly disheartening is that what few voices we have heard recently on the overlay issue have been acquiescent or compromising. For instance, a recent editorial in the Palos Verdes Peninsula News told readers "There's no question that the coming area code overlay will be an inconvenience. However, by following a few simple tips and separating fact from fiction, we'll all get through the change with little difficulty." The South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce (once a major player in opposing the overlay) – as part of its public policy priorities for 2006 – is taking a position encouraging a "10-digit overlay" and future inventory guidelines, as if dialing the "1" is a big deal and anyone will care about number counts after this goes through. These positions are well-intended, but misguided. And I'm sure they're not alone in thinking that because the CPUC has passed down its ruling that the matter is settled. It's not, and those who think so are forgetting recent history.

In 1999, the CPUC was much further along in its efforts to implement an overlay area code in the South Bay before public outcry forced it to halt the program mere weeks before it was set to launch.

This time around, the CPUC and the industry have done a much better job convincing people that their decision is a fait accompli. And as long as people fall for that, it will be true. If people start making noise, however, the overlay will crumble to the ground like the sham it is.

(Jan. 30, 2006)

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