No area code crisis looms, expert says

A U.S. House subcommittee intends to look at the issue of "area code exhaustion" at a hearing next month. While telephone numbers longer than 10 digits will be eventually be needed once the three-digit area code combinations are exhausted, it isn't likely to happen for many years, said one official.

There are now 306 area codes in use out of a possible 800 combinations. The numbers one and zero aren't used to start an area code.

Under current projections, the remaining supply of unused area codes is a large enough to satisfy demand until after 2039, according to Ron Conners, director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA). Washington-based communications service provider NeuStar Inc. acts as the third-party administrator for NANPA under a Federal Communications Commission agreement.

There was some fear that the number of area codes could run out in a decade because of the increasing demand for additional numbers to serve wireless, home and business use. That prompted a series of conservation measures to slow the release of new telephone numbers. The area codes "could have [been] exhausted within 10 years if we had done nothing," said Conners.

"I don't think we need to panic. I think we need to implement these kinds of conservation techniques, and if we do that, I think we're going to be safe for quite some time," said Conners, who will be testifying before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet at its Sept. 7 hearing.

In 1947, there were only 86 area codes, and 61 were added during the next 50 years. But the rate increased dramatically in recent years. In 1997 alone, 32 new area codes were created. That increasing rate of area code usage, as well as the cost that would be imposed if the three-digit area codes were exhausted, worried the FCC, which has taken steps "to ensure that the limited numbering resources are used efficiently," it said in a report released in June.

Conservation measures include more efficient distribution of unused numbers to carriers.

The specter of 11- or 12-digit dialing may be in the future, but area code changes are still an issue. But the problem has become easier to address for enterprises, which have typically adapted their systems to handle frequent area code updates, said Mark Winther, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts. "I don't believe, from a typical enterprise perspective, that is a big issue anymore," he said.

But it can be an expensive problem for some businesses that don't have automated processes for changing area codes. That and other expenses, such as reprinting costs for corporate stationery, can add up. "Keypunch operators go bleary eyed when they've got large databases that have to be changed by hand," said Harry Henderson, an analyst at Information Technology Group in Chicago, a company that develops area code software.

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Patrick Thibodeau

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