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The numbers don’t seem to add up. Maine is projected to exhaust the 207 area code by 2024, and yet a fairly recent report has shown that only 37 percent of 207 phone numbers are actually being used. It begs the question, how is that possible?
An inquiry on preserving the 207 area code launched by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) last year is instructive on this point. It outlines how at least three forces contribute to area code exhaustion: numbers being assigned and used, numbers being held essentially in storage by service providers based on expected need, and disconnected numbers that need to sit unused for a certain amount of time.
“One factor is the anticipated need for future numbers. Another factor has to do with the way that numbers are assigned…” the notice of inquiry explained. “Currently, when a provider needs line numbers in a given exchange — … an exchange is assigned to a geographic area within an area code — the provider is given a 1,000 line number block in that exchange. If the provider utilizes more than 100 of those numbers, that block is considered ‘contaminated’ and the block is then reserved for the exclusive use of that provider. This clearly leads to inefficiencies.”
Clearly leads to inefficiencies? Now there’s an understatement. We’re talking about a huge amount of phone numbers sitting unused. From our perspective, this looks like an inefficient system that has at least in some ways exhausted its usefulness rather than an area code that has exhausted its numbers.
As we’ve noted before, Maine’s single area code is eventually going to max out at some point. That seems inevitable, but not necessarily impending. And it is not a reason, despite the suggestion of some in the telecom industry, to forgo actions that can extend the lifespan of what is a cultural and practical fixture here in the Pine Tree State. These potential actions include efforts to identify and free up some of the many numbers sitting unused.
The PUC is right to explore several options, including a newer investigation into the number inventories of service providers. The PUC has directed these providers to identify any thousand-number blocks that have 100 or less numbers being used.
The PUC in 2019 joined New Hampshire’s request to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 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. The PUC pushed for action again in a July petition to the FCC. This effort recently got a boost from the Maine congressional delegation.
“On behalf of residents and businesses across our state, we urge the Commission to explore all available possibilities — of which there are many — to avoid the exhaustion of the 207 area code,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden wrote in a joint letter to the FCC’s acting chairwoman. “Specifically, we strongly support MPUC’s petition to evaluate and implement individual telephone number pooling as a pilot effort in Maine. This proposal would address gaping inefficiencies in the current system and allow Mainers to use the 207 area code exclusively for many years to come.”
This isn’t asking the FCC or phone companies to move heaven and earth. It’s asking that inefficiencies in a system be addressed to avoid the artificial exhaustion of an area code with less than 40 percent utilization. That continues to sound like a very reasonable ask to us.