What’s With These Area Codes?

The North American Numbering Plan was devised to enable direct dialing of long distance telephone calls. It began with a relatively simple set of numbers. But since the huge increase in the number of telephones in recent years, it has evolved into a complicated and confusing mess.

The system provides unique telephone numbers for all phones across the United States and its territories, Canada, Bermuda, and 17 nations in the Caribbean. The numbers consist of 10 digits, e.g. 123-456-7890, where 123 is the area code, 456 is the exchange, and 7890 is the subscriber number.

201 was the first area code introduced in New Jersey in 1951. In the 50s, it was decided to keep the numbers simple, so that they wouldn’t take very long to dial, using the rotary phones of the era. So the middle digit was always either a 0 or a 1. At the time, it was thought that this system would be sufficient to provide area codes for all phones until well into the 21st century.

Up until the late 80s, calls were recognized as long distance if the 2nd digit of the number being dialed was a 0 or 1, and were routed accordingly. If the second digit was not a 0 or 1, the call would be routed to a local number. This meant that a seven digit number could not have a second digit of 0 or 1, or it would be mistaken for a long distance call.

This limitation on telephone numbers was remedied when long distance dialers were required to use an initial 1, thus allowing local telephone exchanges to use numbers like 202-6789. If there was no initial 1, this would be recognized as a local number.

At about the same time, in the early 90s, there began a rapid increase in the demand for telephone numbers. There were two main reasons for this:

  1. The widespread use of faxes, modems, and mobile phones.
  2. Deregulation of local telephone services.

Whenever a new local telephone service provider opened up, it was assigned a unique exchange, thus reserving a block of 10,000 numbers. This resulted in the under-utilization of area codes, since most of the new “Baby Bells” did not have that many subscribers.

In adding new codes, two methods were introduced:

  1. Splits. The region of an existing area code is divided in two – one keeping the old code, and the other FORCED to adopt a new code. For example, in 2003, area code 941 in southwestern Florida split off its southern region to use the new code 239. Residents of the new region were given one year to make the change – and of course to change their stationery to show the new number.
  2. Overlays. A second code is added to a region that already has an area code. In this case, since the same region has more than one code, residents MUST dial 10 digits to reach ANY number. Ironically, this means that if you live in such a region, your next door neighbor could have a different area code!

Since 1996, when Local Number Portability was introduced, the situation has gotten so out of hand that now an area code gives virtually no information about the location of the telephone. Here are just two examples gleaned from my own experience here in the US Virgin Islands.

  • I have a friend who moved here a few years ago from Savannah, Georgia. She brought her cellular telephone with her, and still uses the same 912 area code that she used before moving. This means that anyone calling her from the Virgin Islands must dial a 10-digit number and, if they are using a landline, must pay for the call.
  • Two years ago, I purchased a Magic Jack, which plugs into my computer, and uses the internet to place and receive phone calls. At present, there are no Magic Jack telephone numbers available in the Virgin Islands, so my telephone number has a pin code barrackpore, which is supposedly located in Culpeper, VA. Not only is this confusing – one friend asked me, when did I move to Virginia? – but local people using a landline must pay to call me.

So who do we blame for this monstrous system, and what can we do about it? I don’t think there is anyone specifically who caused this to happen. It was hardly possible to predict the future of telecommunications when the system was set up initially.

And at this late stage, I don’t think there is anything that can be done to clean it up. One good thing though… We no longer have to wait for the dial on a rotary phone to click its way around each time a number is entered.

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