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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

603 is safe as NH’s area code

More than a decade after concerns were raised that New Hampshire would soon need a second area code, it looks as if 603 will remain our only area code for many more years to come – which means, among other things, that we won’t be forced to adopt mandatory 10-digit dialing when calling locally.

The situation has changed not because more phone numbers have been created, but because unused numbers are being parcelled out better.

Notably, roughly 440,000 unsold phone numbers that were stranded as a by-product of telephone deregulation will become available this year to be handed out to new customers. Since that figure is roughly 10 times as many phone numbers as were distributed last year, it seems as if 603 could have room to grow for a decade or more.

Kate Bailey, director of the telecommunications section at the Public Utilities Commission, cautioned that the schedule isn’t certain.

“There may be years when we use more (numbers) than last year, or there may be service that we haven’t anticipated that will require phone numbers,” she said.

In general, Bailey said, officials don’t see any need to add a second New Hampshire area code in the foreseeable future.

Even before those unused phone numbers became available this year, the North American Numbering Plan Administration had already pushed back by two years the estimated date that 603 would be full, to spring 2015.

NANPA is the organization that caused local panic back in 1999, when it said that area code 603 would soon fill up due to growth in the state.

That left New Hampshire facing two options: Either splitting into two separate area codes or, more likely, creating an “overlay” area code that would blanket the state. The latter situation would have forced everybody to dial 10 digits (1 plus the three-digit area code plus the seven-digit phone number) every time they called anybody in New Hampshire.

The wish to avoid that scenario helped spur a change in the way potential phone numbers were parcelled out to phone companies and Internet providers.

Numbers are now handed out 1,000 at a time instead of 10,000 at a time, producing fewer unused remnants.

For example, if a new carrier enters a region and needs some phone numbers to sell (as happened when Comcast began providing phone service), officials would hand over 555-0000 through 555-1000, rather than 555-0000 through 555-9999, and wouldn’t give out more until all those numbers are attached to customers.

This improvement has added years to the supply of numbers available within 603, and led NANPA to repeatedly delay its predicted time when New Hampshire would need a second area code.

The latest improvement is coming about because 440,000 numbers (44 local exchanges, each containing 1,000 phone numbers) has been assigned to a firm called Global NAPs, which handled Internet service for Verizon.

Those numbers were never sold, and since Global NAPs does not have an agreement with FairPoint Communications, it no longer has any claim on them, the state Public Utilities Commission staff said. During the course of this year, they will be returned to the pool of available phone numbers.

The whole question of telephone numbers is in flux partly because of the widespread adoption of cell phones, which don’t need to use the local area code, and partly because of new technologies.

Services like Skype, which was recently bought by Microsoft, and Google Voice, which directs calls to third-party numbers, send voice calls over the Internet in ways that aren’t connected to phone numbers like landline phones are.

It’s not clear what effect these will have on the future of New Hampshire’s sole area code. But for the time being, it looks like 603 is safe.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.