For the past few months the phone company’s been singing the same song: with the demand for phone lines increasing and the pool of available phone numbers decreasing, the time has come to split Chicago into separate area codes.

There is, Ameritech contends, no fairer, less expensive way to handle the explosive demand for services. “Quite simply, we’re running out of phone numbers,” says Lisa Kim, an Ameritech spokeswoman. “This is the most practical solution that could be devised.”

But there’s a new voice straining to be heard above the chorus, that of consumer groups who call the proposed solution a sham. “All the hassles, inconveniences, and costs of the new area code are being dumped on consumers,” says Martin Cohen, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a statewide consumer watchdog group. “I think the phone companies should bear the costs, since they’ll be benefiting the most.”

Of course, any area code change is bound to rankle consumers. It means costly and annoying adjustments, such as changing stationery, signs, and business cards and making calls to directory assistance (at 30 cents a pop) to find the correct code. Worst of all, if you don’t dial the proper area code there’s that earsplitting alarm followed by that dreadful mechanical voice informing you of your mistake.

This change is particularly controversial because it’s not clear why or even if the shortage is so severe.

Ameritech says the new code is unavoidable. “More people than ever have faxes and modems,” says Kim. “More people work out of their houses. In some cases, you’ll have three or four phone numbers in a house where there once was one.”

But Cohen says the shortage was grossly exacerbated when Ameritech assigned 430,000 wireless numbers with the 312 area code to wireless phones and pagers in the suburbs.

“One of the quirks in all this is that Ameritech didn’t act in time when it was clear the suburbs were going to fill up all their phone numbers,” says Cohen. “So when the demand for wireless service began to rise, they assigned the cellular phone companies 312 numbers to use in the suburbs,” says Cohen. “And that’s one of the main reasons the city’s running out of phone numbers.”

It looks like another case of suburbanites benefiting at Chicago’s expense (as they have by using state and federal funds to build highways that induce industries to leave the city), though consumer groups aren’t pushing this angle. “I don’t see this as city versus suburb. I see it as the manipulation of the system by the phone companies, particularly the cellular companies,” says Cohen. “If they had a separate area code for all wireless phones and pagers–in city and suburbs–we wouldn’t be going through this right now.”

Ironically, Ameritech endorsed such a suggestion in 1994 when it proposed a 773 area code for wireless phones and pagers. The company argued that this would reduce the demand on phone numbers, delay the need for a second area code in Chicago, and ruffle the fewest feathers.

“There’s a geographical reason for having one area code for Chicago–it’s one place,” says Cohen. “But a cellular phone can be used anywhere in the Chicago metropolitan area. When you call it you don’t know where you’re calling. It doesn’t matter what its area code is.”

That 1994 proposal was endorsed by almost every consumer group and elected official in the state, and was on the way to almost certain adoption when Ameritech changed its mind. “In November they all of a sudden came up with a completely different plan calling for pancaking or overlaying area codes in the suburbs,” says Cohen. “There would have been new area codes for new phones in the suburbs.”

In other words, the new guy on the block would have a different area code from his next-door neighbor. There’d be separate codes in the same houses, with a newly installed downstairs phone receiving a different code than the older line upstairs. “It would be chaos,” says Cohen. “You wouldn’t know what area code to dial. You’d be calling directory information all the time.”

The Illinois Commerce Commission rejected this proposal, while Cohen and others wondered why Ameritech dropped the idea of a separate code for wireless phones. The answer only made them more upset. It turned out that several cellular phone companies had a case before the Federal Communications Commission challenging the fairness of separate area codes for wireless services. Earlier this year the FCC ruled in their favor.

“The rationale for the FCC decision is that wireless and wire lines are direct competitors, so it’s discriminatory to force cellular lines to have a separate area code,” says Cohen. “That’s preposterous. First of all, cellular service is not a direct competitor. The price is higher. People don’t get cellular phones as opposed to wire lines. They get it in addition to wire line service. They get it for their cars or whatever. It’s an adjunct service for those who can afford it.”

The ruling also presumes that consumers won’t buy wireless phones because they come with different area codes. “That’s absurd,” says Cohen. “Can you imagine someone saying, “I would have bought a cellular phone if it had a different area code’? They get the cellular phone because they want it–they don’t care about the area code.”

A spokeswoman for Cellular One, which was one of the companies that brought the case to the FCC, did not respond for comment; Ameritech said it opposed the ruling. But the company asks: where were Cohen and his consumer cohorts when the regulatory war was being waged in Washington?

“We didn’t even know the case was before the FCC. Had we known that, we’d have been right there fighting it,” says Cohen. “And it’s not as though the ruling doesn’t help Ameritech at least somewhat. They’re an octopus with many tentacles. Don’t forget, they’re in both businesses. They have one of the largest cellular companies as well as being a monopoly land-line provider. They’re on both sides of this argument.”

Whatever, the ICC scrapped its overlapping scheme, so Ameritech said it had no choice but to divide the city into two codes.

The split is supposed to leave the central business district with the old 312 area code, and give everyone else 773. “The downtown gets the old area code because of the high concentration of business there,” says Kim. “It would have been very expensive to make them all change their stationery and business cards.”

The boundaries follow the phone company’s wire centers, which are service lines it drew many years ago. “These wire centers don’t precisely match street boundaries, but they come pretty close,” says Kim. “They roughly run from Western Avenue on the west, to Lake Michigan on the east, to 35th Street on the south, to North Avenue on the north.”

Any other division would cost an extra $15 million and require 55,000 customers to change the last seven digits of their phone numbers, says Kim. “We did extensive focus groups in preparing for this,” she adds. “And the customers clearly said they don’t want to undergo number changes. So this is the best solution.”

Once again, Cohen disagrees. He doesn’t think 55,000 customers or any at all would have to change their numbers. And he says, “These wire center lines are totally arbitrary; they bear no relation to neighborhoods or well-known geographical boundaries like the Chicago River or the expressways. If you drive on Armitage west from Clark Street, for example, by the time you get to Ashland you’ve been driving in and out of the new area code three times. It’s damn close to meaningless.”

Cohen testified against the new area code at ICC hearings held last week, as did officials from the city and state. But despite the opposition, many observers figure it’s only a matter of time before the ICC approves Ameritech’s request. Kim says the company hopes to install the new code in October 1996.

“We’ll have an extensive education period,” says Kim. “We’ll have forums in the communities and in the schools. We’ll be in malls. We’ll have a three-month permissive dialing period so the change won’t really take effect until January 1997. We want to make this as smooth a transition for our customers as we can.”

Consumer activists, however, say they will press the ICC to reject the proposal and encourage Ameritech to revive its original proposal. “The separate wireless area code is still the best idea,” says Cohen. “If they stuck to that, everyone would be behind them. They represent this plan as a take-it-or-leave-it option, although it’s not an option unless you want to take it on the chin.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chip Williams.