The 520 area code, which covers all of Arizona except the Phoenix area, will run out of prefixes in about a year, so public hearings are under way around the state to discuss options for implementing a new area code.
The two options being considered, according to the Arizona Corporation Commission, are splitting outstate Arizona into two geographic areas or overlapping the new area code over the entire area.
"A geographic split essentially draws a line through an existing area code and assigns a new area code to customers on one side of the line," Corporation Commission spokesperson Heather Murphy said. "The other side retains their existing area code.
"An overlay adds a new area code to an existing geographic region. This means that two area codes will work in the same general area," she said. "New customers or customers requesting new lines of service would be assigned the new area code."
If a geographic split is chosen, the corridor between Phoenix and Nogales would retain the 520 area code under a proposal submitted by the telecommunications industry. That means Payson and the Rim country would be included in the portion that gets a new area code, while Tucson and most of Pinal and Santa Cruz counties would keep the 520 code.
Other communities that would share the new area code with the Rim country include Sierra Vista, Douglas, Winslow, Window Rock, Prescott, Flagstaff, Kingman, Bullhead City, Lake Havasu City and Yuma.
The need for another area code has been accelerated by the proliferation of cell phones, fax machines, pagers, modem lines and second and third lines in homes according to Murphy. "All of these factors mean there are fewer and fewer numbers available," she said.
The disadvantages of a geographic split include the fact that businesses have to reprint business cards and everything else that contains the old area code, and that the "slicing and dicing" of a particular area will continue as the state grows. One advantage is that people can get an idea of where a person or business is located because the new area code would have a geographic identity.
The disadvantages of an overlay plan include the fact that people have to dial 10 digits all the time, and that businesses and individuals may end up with more than one area code for their multiple phone lines. The major advantage of the overlay option is that all telephone numbers remain the same and businesses don't have to change their printed materials.
Whichever option is ultimately chosen, there will not be a long distance charge for calls to the new area code if the number was a local call before. "But calls to areas like Tucson would still be toll calls," Murphy explained.
She also pointed out that our situation is quite different from the Valley, where a geographic split was recently implemented. "That was a compressed area, and they also had to introduce two area codes at the same time," she explained.
Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Kaleta said there is no question that the business community would prefer the overlay system. "A lot of businesses here are making it by the skin of their teeth," he said, "and besides, nobody came here and asked for our opinions."
Kaleta also said a geographic split would be more palatable if Qwest would help offset the printing costs local businesses would incur. "For years, US West and Qwest have taken money out of the system without making any improvements, but we're the ones being asked to pay for changes that will allow Qwest to grow," he noted.
Murphy emphasized that the Corporation Commission will make the final decision on which plan to implement with input from the telecommunications industry and the businesses and people in the affected areas. But while hearings have been held in Tucson and Kingman and are being planned for Prescott and Flagstaff, no hearing is currently scheduled to be held in the Rim country.
Murphy said Rim country residents who want to express an opinion should send a letter to:
Arizona Corporation Commission
Attn: Chairman Carl Kunasek
1200 W. Washington
Phoenix, AZ 85007
In the letter, reference the 520 area code and ask that it be copied to the other commissioners.