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Just a call away? It's not that easy

An abundance of area codes, phone books and fees creates headaches for phone customers.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003


When someone asks Dawn Kirkman to check a number in the phone book, her most accurate reply is "Which phone book?"

Because if you're a business or resident in Pasco County, you've got so many to choose from. Divided among three area codes and three local phone companies, Pasco is awash in white and yellow pages.

"I don't know how many phone books we have, but it's a pain in the rear," said Kirkman, who works for Dew Insurance Agency in Land O'Lakes. "There's so many of them it looks trashy, so I hide them in the cabinet."

The west Pasco communities of Holiday, Port Richey, New Port Richey, Hudson and Spring Hill share one fat volume under the 727 area code. From there it gets complicated.

Land O'Lakes, Lutz and Wesley Chapel are included in one thin phone book, but also figure in Tampa's yellow and white pages because they all use the 813 area code.

Dade City splits a book with Brooksville, a fellow 352 area code community. Zephyrhills (813 area code) has its own wafer of a book but also publishes numbers in the Dade City book.

As if that weren't enough, BellSouth, with several hundred customers along U.S. 41 in north-central Pasco, publishes its own directory.

"I know, it seems crazy," said Bob Elek, spokesman for Verizon, which serves the bulk of local calling customers in the county. "Unfortunately, Pasco is just one of those counties where three different companies come together."

But even within Verizon's territory, things get labyrinthine. New Port Richey residents dial Clearwater locally, but a few miles up the road in Hudson, Clearwater becomes a toll call.

Dade City residents reach Zephyrhills without dialing an area code. But Zephyrhills residents calling Dade City need to punch in 352.

Land O'Lakes residents must dial a 1 before calling 727 numbers in west Pasco. But when they call 727 numbers in Pinellas County, a 1 is rarely necessary.

For businesses and government agencies, the dialing system is at best an annoyance and at worst a financial drain.

When Tom Whitehall took over the Pasco County School District's telecommunications department in 1987, calling between schools entailed tons of toll charges.

"The long distance bills were just outrageous," Whitehall said.

His solution was to plug all calls through a central brain in Land O'Lakes. That allows the school district to use "least cost routing."

For example, if a Dade City school wants to call Clearwater, Whitehall's system routes the call through a New Port Richey line, for which Clearwater is a local call.

"I'd estimate we've saved in the neighborhood of $3-million to $5-million over the years," Whitehall said.

County commissioners asked the Public Service Commission for countywide toll-free calling in 1991, but calling studies showed limited east-west traffic to justify it then.

The PSC offered relief by requiring the county's three phone companies to begin "extended calling service," which made many long distance calls 25-cent calls.

The current three area codes stem from 1998, when west Pasco was grouped with Pinellas and central Pasco with Hillsborough County.

The groupings reflect calling patterns established 40 year ago, patterns Verizon's Elek admits might no longer hold true in all cases.

"You can understand the frustrations," he said. "You're talking about calling patterns established in 1963."

For residents of Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel, being grouped with Tampa creates extra annoyances. Their phone books include long listings for government services in Hillsborough but barely reference Pasco government numbers.

If you lose water, for example, the directory lists no number for Pasco utilities, an office based in west Pasco. (By the way, that number is 727-847-8144. If no answer, dial 727-847-8105.)

Pasco's dialing division doesn't frustrate everyone. Land O'Lakes real estate agent Cody Adams said he still considers central Pasco a place apart from the rest of the county. So it's no surprise that phoning isn't simple.

"We're a different entity from west Pasco," Adams said.

And Adams reflects other trends reducing people's reliance on traditional phone books and household and business lines. He makes many of his calls from a cell phone. And his main directory is the Internet.

Kirkman, too, is just as apt to click on her favorite Web site for a phone number than consult the stack of phone books in her office cabinet. Nevertheless, she'd support less complex calling.

"My mother in Shady Hills uses the 352 area code. Right down the road from her in Shady Hills they use 727," Kirkman said. "Does that make any sense?"

-- James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is thorner@sptimes.com.

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