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More than two decades ago, Bob Filner embraced a plan to boost border ties by creating a way for San Diego and Tijuana to easily call each other. But it didn’t go anywhere.

Filner, now mayor, still likes the idea, which he now refers to as a cross-border area code. He even mentioned it last week as a one way to bring these two major cities together. But there’s a hitch or two. Or 619.

The creation of the area code would be a challenge on the bureaucratic and technical fronts. And beyond that, the professor who initially pushed for easier international calling now says other issues should take priority.

“Filner’s heart is in the right place. But the area code isn’t what’s important. What’s important is using telecommunications to blur the border,” said John Eger, a professor of communications and public policy at San Diego State University and a former CBS executive.

Filner, who’s made a priority of improving cross-border ties, brought up the area code at a meeting with Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante.

Amid a discussion of ways to unite the two cities through tools like a dedicated mayor-to-mayor “bat phone” hotline, he described it as a way to save money on phone calls and symbolically bring the two cities together, according to U-T San Diego.

“Technically, it’s a trivial matter, you throw a few switches,” Filner reportedly said. “Politically, it’s more difficult.”

In reality, such a plan would face plenty of technical hurdles.

First, there’s the matter of the “country code,” the numbers that a phone user must dial to reach most foreign countries. For example, people in the U.S. must dial 52 to reach Mexican numbers, and Mexicans must dial 1 to reach the U.S.

It’s possible for two countries to share a country code, said Philippe Fouquart, who works for the International Communications Union, a Switzerland-based agency that oversees various telecommunication standards across the world, including country codes.

The U.S., Canada, Bermuda and several Caribbean nations share the country code of 1, for example. And Fouquart said that phone users in Italy can dial into Vatican City (technically a separate country within Italy) without a separate country code.

This can happen as long as “both countries agree, and they are sovereign states. It’s a national matter as long as it does not impact the outside world,” Fouquart said.

Could that happen here? Maybe, but there would be unprecedented issues to work out.

“I don’t know that anybody has ever considered something like this,” said John Manning, senior director of the North American Numbering Plan, a system that oversees area codes in the region.

For one thing, Mexico’s phone system has a different numbering system than that in the U.S., Manning said. Mexico has 10-digit phone numbers like ours, but the area code can be two or three digits (ours are always three).

This might be less of a problem because San Diego and Tijuana both have three-digit area codes. But individual phone service providers on both sides of the border would need to deal with various technical issues to make the switch, Manning said.

And then there’s the matter of bureaucracy, which falls under the political challenges that Filner described. State and federal agencies in both countries, like the FCC, would need to get involved, Manning said. And any talk of an actual new area code for San Diego and Tijuana would raise a host of new issues.

Area codes can serve up to 8 million customers, Manning said, and authorities might be wary of giving one up to serve a much smaller population: “Is that a good way to use a scarce resource?”

Finally, there’s the matter of cost. Calling Mexico can be expensive. AT&T cell phone users, for example, must pay 65 cents a minute to call a Mexican cell phone if they don’t have a special plan. Companies like AT&T may balk at having to change their systems and revise their rates downward to allow for cheaper talk between San Diego and Tijuana.

It’s not clear how Filner’s area code plan would work. His office didn’t reply to a request for comment. If he has a new area code in mind, it might not reach millions of users (with landlines, cell phones, fax machines and so on) unless residents on both sides of the border are willing to give up their current area codes. And the controversies over new local area codes show that San Diego residents aren’t overly enthusiastic about changing their numbers.

Eger, who pushed the idea of easier cross-border calling in 1991, said he is no longer pushing for a new area code. “You need to have a more comprehensive scheme other than just change the area code. Maybe Filner chose that because it has a certain cachet, a ring to it.”

Still, he said, “Filner is on the right track, and he could potentially do something very big” in terms of uniting San Diego and Tijuana. The key is to boost the economies of both cities by bringing them together as one entity, he said. “It’ll definitely put San Diego-Tijuana on the world map.”

For more about Filner’s cross-border goals and the hurdles he faces, check our story from earlier this year.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. You may not republish this content without his consent. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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