603 can stay single for a few more years

A lot of the things that make New Hampshire special have taken it on the chin recently.

We’ve lost the Old Man of the Mountain and the highest wind speed, and if climate change accelerates, we might lose leaf peeping and syrup season. At this rate, we’re going to end up as North New Jersey.

But doggone it, there’s still one thing that says we’re small and folksy: We have a single telephone area code, good old 603. They can’t take that away from us.

Well, yes, they can. And someday they will – but not for a few years, it seems.

New Hampshire received 603 as our area code back in 1947 when Ma Bell set up the long-distance system in preparation for direct-dial calling.

In 1999, the telecom powers that be, called the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA), said New Hampshire would soon need a second area code because we were growing so much.

Since then, every human being in the state older than 18 months has bought a cell phone, which has filled our area code even faster.

As explained by Kate Bailey, director of the telecommunications section at the Public Utilities Commission, we’ve been saved from a second area code largely because potential phone numbers are now parcelled out 1,000 at a time instead of 10,000, producing fewer unused remnants.

If a new carrier enters an area and needs some phone numbers to sell, or if an existing carrier has more customers that it needs to connect, officials will hand over 555-0000 through 555-1000, rather than 555-0000 through 555-9999 as was once done, and it won’t give out any more until those numbers are used up.

(My use of the 555 exchange should have been a giveaway that my examples were fictitious. If not, check Wikipedia: It has an entire article about 555’s use for fake phone numbers in movies and TV. )

This “number conservation” has worked so well that NANPA now estimates 603 won’t be filled until halfway through 2013, a date that was pushed back from the fall of 2012.

And that date is just an estimate, leaving hopes it can be pushed back even further.

The PUC staff is meeting Dec. 17 to brainstorm ways to extend that deadline further. If you have thoughts – other than “make everybody except me give up his or her cell phone,” which probably wouldn’t fly – they’d like to hear about it.

Write them a note (PUC, 21 S. Fruit St., Suite 10, Concord, NH 03301-2429) or check the website (www.puc.nh.gov). This issue is officially called docket No. 10-211.

If a second area code does arrive, it will almost certainly be in the form of an overlay, since that’s recommended by NANPA, the state and all interested parties.

An overlay means the new area code would cover all of New Hampshire, and all current numbers would keep 603 as their area code. The new code – I’ll call it 838, which has the same number of “clicks” on a rotary dial as 603 – would be attached to all new phone numbers.

The alternative is a split, divvying up the state like we’re divided into two non-overlapping congressional districts.

A split would be bad because everybody in the new code would have to change their phone number.

But an overlay is also bad because it means we’d always have to dial 10 digits – area code plus exchange plus final four digits – on every local call, because the telephone switch would need to know whether 555-1212 means 603-555-1212 or 838-555-1212.

Still, those extra numbers are less of an annoyance than they once were because so many people use speed dial or some form of click-in-address-book on cell phones. Seven digits or 10 digits, it’s all the same to them.

The decision on whether to go with overlay or split will probably be made late next year.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.