February 22, 2020
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207 area code exhaustion calls for a solution

Lori Valigra | BDN
Lori Valigra | BDN
The Maine Public Utilities Commission on April 11, 2019, deliberates whether the Central Maine Power hydropower corridor should be granted a certificate of public necessity. From left to right: PUC Commissioner R. Bruce Williamson, Chairman Mark Vannoy and Commissioner Randall D. Davis.

For all the (often unhelpful) talk about “two Maines” there is at least one thing that unifies every region of the state: a single area code.

The 207 area code is more than three digits at the beginning of Maine telephone numbers. It is a brand that has become firmly rooted in the state’s collective consciousness. So the discussion at the Maine Public Utilities Commission about Maine potentially run ning out of 207 numbers by 2024, is sure to raise some concerns around the Pine Tree State.

“I think there’s a lot of nostalgia around 207,” PUC Chairman Phil Bartlett said, according to WGME. “It’s become part of the brand of Maine, so I think people would be dismayed.”

Count us in the dismayed column, should it come to that. After all, the 207 area code almost feels like part of our state genetic code at this point. But it’s a possibility everyone should prepare for.

It’s not as if the state hasn’t heard similar news before. The BDN reported in 2015 about predictions that the 207 area code could be exhausted in 2019. Obviously that didn’t end up happening, so it’s not hard to wonder if this is a Chicken Little kind of situation.

In this case, however, it seems likely that the sky is eventually going to fall.

The problem isn’t that Maine’s statewide population is growing too fast for the phone numbers to keep up. That would be a good problem to have. And while the increased number of devices (multiple cellphones per household, devices in our cars, etc.) surely compounds the problem, it also seems to rest at least in part with an inflexible federal regime for assigning new numbers.

In June, the Maine PUC petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for the ability to assign numbers to service providers on an individual basis, rather than the current system that does so in 1,000 number blocks. That petition was submitted in support of an earlier petition from the New Hampshire PUC, which is similarly looking for ways to preserve its single 603 area code.

As outlined in Maine’s petition, the current process of assigning numbers to providers 1,000 at a time causes many numbers to sit unused — but unavailable when other providers request new numbers. A key to extending the 207 area code’s solo existence, it would seem, will be attempting to free up those unused numbers so they can be reassigned as new requests come in.

“Extending the life of 207 would be beneficial to Maine citizens, and the current 1000-block regime is not an efficient use of numbering resources as demonstrated by the millions of numbers in the 207-area code currently available, but ineligible for release back into the numbering pool,” the Maine PUC wrote to the FCC in the petition.

By our count, Maine is one of 11 states with a single area code. Other states have transitioned from a single area code to multiple codes by splitting the state geographically and assigning different codes to different areas, or by overlaying a new code statewide for new numbers while keeping all existing numbers the same. The longer Maine can delay either option, the better.

At the state level, the PUC is also poised to initiate its own inquiry into potential solutions to area code exhaustion. Its three commissioners discussed the issue during Feb. 4 deliberations.

“What I find ironic is that the state of exhaustion is in appearance only, not in reality, as there could still be millions of 207 numbers unutilized if the process is not changed,” Commissioner Randall Davis said.

Any sizable solution may ultimately lie nationally with the FCC, not here in Maine with the PUC. But it’s encouraging that the PUC appears ready to explore possible preservation strategies, and is already asking the federal government for more leeway in this effort.

Even with some sort of action now, it is likely — if not guaranteed — that Maine will need to add a second area code at some point. By all means, the PUC should pursue potential solutions and stop-gap measures, and keep pressing for flexibility at the federal level. But let’s not forget: Maine will still be Maine, no matter how many area codes we have.

 


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