For people making local phone calls, their number is up.

By three digits.

People in the 801 area code region will be encouraged, starting today, to use the area code along with the seven-digit phone number to complete local calls. It's in preparation for next year's full implementation of the 385 area code, which will serve the same geographic region.

The Public Service Commission and phone carriers are urging callers to use 10-digit dialing in Davis, Morgan, Salt Lake, Weber and Utah counties through March 1, 2009. During that period, local calls from the 801 region will be completed regardless of whether the caller uses seven or 10 digits.

But those organizations want people to get accustomed to 10-digit local calls during the "permissive dialing" grace period. Beginning March 1, 2009, local calls will require 10 digits to be completed.

"There certainly have been questions that have been asked related to it," said Julie Orchard, spokeswoman for the commission. "Some people are still somewhat afraid to do 10-digit dialing rather than the seven digits that they're used to. They're going to have to experience it, and that's why there's such an advantage to having a long time for the permissive dialing. It's a chance to get used to it."

"We've gotten a few consumer calls but not very many," said Michele Beck, director of the Utah Committee of Consumer Services, which represents individuals and small businesses in utility matters before the PSC. "And we don't have any significant concerns about how it's being implemented. There is a certain amount of confusion among customers, which is why the permissive dialing period is a good idea and a crucially important part of the process."

The commission has issued a news release about the new area code procedures — details are available at www.publicutilities.utah.gov/area-code-overlay.html — and landline and cell-phone carriers included notices about the changes with customer bills in April.

In addition to having callers use 10 digits, the commission and others are asking people to ensure that automatic dialing equipment programmed with seven-digit numbers is reprogrammed to use the 10-digit procedure. They can include cell phone directories, life safety systems, fax machines, Internet dial-up numbers, alarm and security systems, security gates, speed dialers, call forward settings, voice-mail services and similar functions.

The Public Service Commission decided last July to have the new 385 area code used for new phone numbers also serve the existing 801 region rather than splitting the 801 region. One advantage to the so-called "overlay" method is that people with existing 801 numbers will not have their area code or phone number changed. The new 385 code will be assigned to new numbers as early as next spring.

"New people moving in will get the 385 area code, so their next-door neighbor could have a different area code than you have," Orchard said. "People will have to adjust to that."

Also remaining unchanged are three-digit dialing for 911, 411 and other current three-digit service options and the rates and areas for toll calls. Long-distance calls will continue to require 1 plus the 10 digits. Operator-assisted calls will need 0 plus 10 digits.

"One of the biggest changes for the folks in Utah who have not lived in other parts of the country is trying to understand that by going to 10-digit dialing, and if you're calling a neighbor across street, that is still a local call," said Gary Younger, a spokesman for Qwest Communications International Inc. "Just because you're adding an area code before a number, the phone rates are staying the same, phone features are staying the same, phone areas are staying the same. The only thing a customer is doing is adding 801 before the phone number."

People still using seven digits after March 1, 2009, will get a recording telling them to hang up and dial their call again using 10 digits.

Utah's only previous area code addition was the 435 code, but it was a geographic split, for areas outside the Wasatch Front. The Utah PSC had to add the new 385 area code because 801 phone numbers were being exhausted.

Phone carriers and utility agencies pushed for the overlay method. Had the 801/385 change been a split instead of an overlay, thousands of individuals and businesses would have needed to change their area code. Adding the burden for businesses to change stationery and business cards and contact customers about the switch was a situation the parties wanted to avoid.

Younger noted that many metro areas across the country have two or more area codes in the same geographic area. "It is new (for Utah), but once people understand the advantages, they'll very quickly adapt to the change," he said.

Orchard said the Utah PSC contacted other states that use the overlay method. Colorado, for example, uses the overlay in Denver. "And they didn't take any time at all to adjust to it," Orchard said.

"We have received a few inquiries about why we made the (overlay) decision. Some people don't want to dial 10 digits. But there's definitely a need for the new area code, and we're looking out for the general public and trying to make it as non-invasive as we can and implement it without causing extra costs."

Younger said customers can expect another notification from Qwest before the mandatory 10-digit dialing begins next spring, and maybe a reminder or two before then.

"We believe we have addressed the concerns of as many people as we possibly can," he said. "The biggest thing is to recommend that people, especially businesses, get used to telling people their phone number with an area code in front of it, and, as people start to dial, to get used to having 801 before the phone number. After March 1, 2009, if you don't use the 801, that call will not be completed."


E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com