Doug's Diggings: Area code changes are relatively painlessSome may have read the story in last week’s Star-Observer about the new telephone area codes for northern Wisconsin. It caught my attention because the whole process is taking place without much fanfare.
By: Doug Stohlberg, Hudson Star-Observer
Some may have read the story in last week’s Star-Observer about the new telephone area codes for northern Wisconsin. It caught my attention because the whole process is taking place without much fanfare.
Some may recall the big controversy in the Twin Cities in 1998 when the 612 area code region was divided and the 651 area code was added. At that time, the area code region was divided geographically. The old 612 region covered both Minneapolis and St. Paul and many of the surrounding suburbs.
Essentially, Minneapolis was allowed to keep the 612 area code and St. Paul was forced to change the area code to 651. All of the St. Paul people were upset because they physically had a new area code. Even more disruptive were phone number changes to St. Paul businesses. They were forced to change area code information on business cards, stationery and a number of other products – this created a financial burden.
On top of all that, the way the codes were divided, people in the 612 area exhausted its supply of phone numbers and underwent another three-way split in the year 2000 - creating new 763 and 952 area codes.
What has prevented all of those 612-651 hassles in northern and western Wisconsin? It’s the concept of an “overlay.” In the 715 area code region, for instance, everyone who currently has the 715 area code will keep that number. The new area code (534) will only be assigned to new numbers.
If there is a downside, it is that people living in the area code will now have to dial all 10 numbers when making a telephone call – in the past the area code was not necessary if a person called within the zone. With so many people using cell phones today, I don’t expect the 10-number dialing to be an issue.
In our family alone we have cell phones with both 651 and 715 area codes. My son, who lives in Hudson, has a 507 area code and his wife has a 414 area code. My other son, who lives in Minnesota, has a 715 area code while his wife has a 651. The bottom line is that everyone seems to be accustomed to dialing a variety of area codes.
Atlanta was the first U.S. city to have mandatory 10-digit dialing throughout its metropolitan area, roughly coinciding with the 1996 Summer Olympics held there. Atlanta was used as the test case not only because of its size, but also because it enjoyed the world's largest fiber optic network at the time (five times that of New York then), and it was home to BellSouth (now part of AT&T), then the Southeastern Regional Bell Operating Company.
Why more area codes?
Canada and the United States have experienced rapid growth in the number of area codes, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s. There are two main reasons.
The first is quite obvious, there was, and continues to be, increasing demand for telephone services (wide scale use of fax machines, modems, pagers and cell phones, etc.).
Second, and possibly more significant, was the deregulation of local telephone service in the U.S. beginning in the early to mid-1990s. At that time, the Federal Communications Commission began allowing telecommunication companies to compete with the incumbent local exchange carrier (usually by forcing the existing monopoly service provider to lease infrastructure to other local providers who then resold the service to consumers).
However, because of the original design of the numbering plan and telephone switching network that assumed only a single provider, number allocations had to be made in 10,000-number blocks. Thus, anytime a new local service provider entered a certain market it would be allocated 10,000 numbers by default, even if the provider only obtained a few (if any) customers.
As more companies began requesting numbering allocations, this caused many area codes to begin exhausting their supply of available numbers, and additional area codes were needed. In reality, many of the new telecom ventures were not successful. While the number of area codes started increasing rapidly, this did not necessarily translate to a much larger number of actual telephone subscribers as large blocks of numbers lay unassigned to any "real" subscribers because of the 10,000-number block allocation requirement.
When these telecom ventures are merged or bought or liquidate, their blocks go to the successor, or go unused. No regulatory mechanism exists to reclaim and reassign these underutilized blocks.
Originally there were only 86 area codes, with the biggest population areas getting the numbers that took the shortest time to dial on rotary telephones. That is why New York City was given 212 (5 clicks), Los Angeles 213, Chicago 312, Philadelphia 215 and St. Louis received 314, while four areas received the then-maximum number of 21 clicks: South Dakota (605), North Carolina (704), South Carolina (803), and Nova Scotia/Prince Edward Island in the Canadian Maritimes (902). Additionally, in the original plan a middle digit of 0 indicated the area code covered an entire state/province, while area codes with a middle digit of 1 were assigned to jurisdictions that were divided into multiple area codes.
At last count there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 area codes. What happens in the future will probably be determined by changes in technology.