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Customer agency urges 812 area code 'overlay'

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By Jesselyn Bickley

A state agency that represents customers is recommending that a new area code in Southern Indiana be laid over the existing one, meaning the entire region will have two area codes instead of one.

The lower third of Indiana has used the 812 area code since 1947, but officials have projected it will exhaust its number supply by 2015. That means a new area code must be implemented. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission is now studying whether to geographically split Southern Indiana into areas - each with a new code - or overlay a new one on top of the existing area. A decision is expected by the end of 2013 and the new code will be phased in over the next year.

The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor - a state agency that represents customers in cases before state regulators - weighed in on the case Thursday. It recommended the overlay. That means those who already have the 812 area code would keep their existing numbers. Any new phone lines and services issued in late 2014 or 2015 would be assigned the new area code.

That's what Janet McCormick, owner of the Urban ReLeaf's Company Store in Evansville, told regulators she'd want. In comments provided to state regulators by the consumer counselor's office, McCormick said she's "spent thousands of dollars through the years, promoting my phone number on magnets, mugs, portfolios, notepads, pens, clocks, stickers, brochures, and other goodies to my clients."

She said changing her number now would cause irretrievable damage to her business if the state forced her to change her area code. "I work with people allover the country - not just Evansville, and there is no possible way I could recover financially from such a change," McCormick wrote.

Regulators hosted 10 public hearings across Southern Indiana to gather testimony on the proposal but had only a few comments, according to the consumer counselor's office. The agency also accepted written or emailed comments. Among them was one from Debbie Young of New Albany who said that she's had her number for more than 16 years and that it would be work to have to change to new a new area code.

But Larry Robinson of Bloomington told regulators he doesn't like the idea of an overlay. "Either divide the area into two zones," he said, "or make all cell phones use the new area code, while keeping land lines and computer lines on the old code."

In the past, state regulators have split Indiana into separate area codes by geography. But there are 24 other states using overlays, including all of Indiana's neighbors. With an overlay, local calling areas will not change and local calls before the new area code is implemented will remain a local call afterward. However, consumers will need to use 10-digit dialing for local calls.

"I'm sure it will be confusing at first to both residents and business alike if we have to have the new area codes," Marc McNeece, president of the Knox County Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday. "But it certainly is something that will be necessary in the future."

Jesselyn Bickley is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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