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Phone issues get officials' attention

Reaching out to touch someone has become pretty complicated in Pasco County.

And not just for those who hold public office in New Port Richey.

Phone service typically isn't considered a sexy topic, but it has caused a bit of a stir among local business and county officials, so bear with me.

Here are the issues: Pasco is the only county in the state with three area codes; we've got three phone companies; to make a call from the county's eastern and western borders to Land O'Lakes costs 25 cents per call, and to make a call from one side of the county to the other is considered long distance. And then there's high-speed Internet access _ or lack thereof.

Not all of these matters can be changed. But business leaders _ who want Pasco to be more dependent on its own economic engines, and an environment where more people live, work and go about their daily, taxable lives locally _ are starting a dialogue about it.

Ralph Cumbee, senior loan officer for First National Bank of Pasco, says he hears about these issues daily.

"We need to ask for toll-free calls countywide," he said. "It's extremely difficult to operate countywide and to get a reasonably priced connection. It helps bifurcate the county, and it's just another thing that makes us two separate counties, rather than one."

County commissioners asked the Public Service Commission for countywide toll-free calling in 1991, but calling traffic studies showed that there wasn't enough east-west traffic to justify it then.

The PSC did give the public some relief by requiring the three phone companies that serve Pasco to institute "extended calling service," which made many long distance calls within the county 25-cent calls.

But as the county has grown, there has been a cry for more relief.

County communications manager Tom Mehlrose has contacted Verizon to see whether the company would consider expanding the local calling area to include calls between Land O'Lakes and Pasco's east and western borders.

"I'd still like to see it extended to all toll-free," Mehlrose said of the county. "The county's toll free and local calling area is smaller than other areas in Tampa Bay." But he doesn't want to ask for too much too soon.

Bob Elek, a spokesman for Verizon, which serves about 150,000 customers in Pasco, says he doesn't know what the company's position would be on this. The quandary doesn't come up very often, he explained.

"There are not many counties that have the curious disposition of Pasco."

(I told him that was true _ on a number of different levels.)

After the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the PSC lost absolute power to tell the phone companies to extend their toll-free service and ceded most if not all of its power over to the phone companies. It's unclear how much oversight the PSC still has over the issue.

Reducing the areas within the county now considered long distance to one another would mean a tremendous cost savings for residents, businesses and the public agencies to whom they pay taxes.

And then there's the issue of 813, 352 and 727.

About two years ago, the PSC introduced the 727 area code to west Pasco and Pinellas County.

Change was needed because area codes were quickly being exhausted by the explosion of cell phones, faxes, pagers and second lines for home computer modems.

The alternative to 727 was an "overlay" which would have created one area code, but required 10-digit dialing for every local call. Businesses said in public hearings that they couldn't take the inconvenience or the cost of changing over to 10 digits.

The PSC determined that east Pasco and North Tampa were a "community of interest" _ and call each other with the most frequency, and so should share an area code, while west Pasco and Pinellas made up a community of interest and so should share an area code. Thus the split.

That's exactly the kind of mindset that local business leaders want to change. They'd like to make Pasco County one community of interest.

In a few years, the public is going to have another chance to make this choice.

Florida's 17 area codes are continuing to be exhausted. The 727 area code is expected to run out of numbers in 2005. The 813 area code is set to run out by the end of 2006.

Dorothy Cutler, PHCC's dean of technology, says having three telephone service providers is a constant problem. That's three sets of bills to interpret and when there's a problem with one of the lines, it takes three times the time to figure which company can fix it.

These issues and many more relating to Pasco's telecommunications needs are scheduled for discussion at a meeting scheduled Nov. 19 from 8:30 to 10 a.m. at the Land O'Lakes Community Center. The meeting is being sponsored by Pasco Forum, a group of business leaders that address issues on workforce, government relations, growth management and transportation. For more details, call 727-372-7566.

Certainly there are plenty more obstacles that bifurcate the county.

But if you have an opinion about any of these, get in touch with assistant county administrator Dan Johnson. You can e-mail him at:

You can also call him. Naturally he's got three numbers with three different area codes. Anywhere you call, it's toll free. In West Pasco: (727) 847-8008. In Central Pasco: (813) 996-7341, ext. 8008. In East Pasco: (352) 521-4274, ext. 8008.