Sorry, Maine, your number’s up. Nearly up, anyway.

After three-quarters of a century, Maine no longer has access to most of the 8 million phone numbers in its 207 area code. Based on expected demand, Maine’s area code is “exhausted,” meaning it could run out of usable numbers by 2024.

What’s in an area code? For Mainers, it’s part of our identity. Shutterstock/ Brian A Jackson

Like lobsters, Bean boots and Katahdin, the 207 area code is tied to Maine’s identity. There’s even a statewide television news show named, simply, “207.”

This cultural connection has been recognized by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which last week opened an unusual investigation: “Inquiry into Preservation of the 207 Area Code.”

Based on its initial staff inquiry and comments from the communications industry, the agency acknowledges that 207’s days are numbered. The question is, are there practical ways to extend the life of 207, or should the PUC take steps sooner than later to add a second area code?

Twenty-five states have added multiple area codes, according to CTIA, the national association that represents wireless carriers. Maine should join that list, the carriers say. In today’s mobile society, a growing number of people have phones with out-of-state area codes.

And there’s a further cultural shift, the association said in initial comments in the case. With wireless phones ubiquitous, area codes and phone numbers are becoming irrelevant for the user.

“The availability of a contact list and the display of names on smartphones means the need to memorize a phone number is significantly less important to consumers,” the group says.

But 207 may have an intangible value to some residents and businesses, according to Phil Bartlett, the PUC’s chair. Raised in Gorham, Bartlett said he’s sensitive to the native Mainer’s affinity for retaining a single area code.

“I think it partly depends on if you’re moving into the state,” he said. “But for folks who have spent their whole lives here, it seems valuable to hold onto it.”

So now it’s up to the PUC to consider how long Maine can hold fast to 207, and at what cost. No time frame has been set for PUC’s investigation, and Bartlett said the hearing examiner running the case will decide whether to schedule a public hearing or broader comment period.

Area codes came into use in North America in the 1940s and are technically called Number Plan Area, or NPA, codes. The Bell System, led by the former Bell Telephone Co., initially created 86 area codes as part of setting up a long-distance, direct dialing system, according to allareacodes.com, an online resource for the North American Numbering Plan. The second digit was always a zero if it covered an entire state or Canadian province, such as 207 for Maine. And it was a one if it covered just a region, such as 617 for Boston.

The next set of three digits is the central office or exchange code. Each exchange code contains roughly 10,000 usable telephone numbers, broken into 10 “blocks” of 1,000 numbers each.

The final four digits are the subscriber or line number. Each block of 1,000 is used for the last four digits of 1,000 telephone numbers.

North America’s telephone number supply is controlled by an administering agency and contractor that maintain a pool of unused area codes and exchanges, and blocks of line numbers. But in three years, based on projections, there won’t be enough numbers in the 207 pool to handle the growing demand for mobile and other wireless devices.

The exhaustion of Maine’s 207 code is being driven by at least three factors, according to the PUC. First are numbers that have been assigned and are in use. Second are numbers that service providers are holding in their inventory based on expected need. Third are disconnected numbers that must be retained for a period before they can be given to new customers.

But the problem is more complicated than that. A recent report by the administrating agency estimated, oddly, that only 37 percent of the numbers in the area code are actually in use.

One reason is the manner in which phone service providers obtain line numbers, in blocks of 1,000. If more than 100 of those numbers are used, the block is considered “contaminated” and is reserved exclusively for that provider. If the contamination is less than 10 percent, unassigned numbers in the block are supposed to be returned to the numbering pool. In its investigation, the PUC wants to gather information on the 1,000-number blocks and determine which should go into the pool.

“In the commission’s view, the most viable option to preserve the life of 207 is aggressive monitoring of number blocks and consistent and timely return of uncontaminated blocks to the numbering pool,” the PUC wrote in its explanation for opening the case.

Another strategy might be “just-in-time” assignment of individual line numbers from the pool for a given exchange, rather than 1,000 line blocks. That change could extend the life of 207 for years, the PUC suggests. New Hampshire wants to try this and is asking the Federal Communications Commission for permission. Maine joined the request last year, but it’s unclear when any action will be taken.

Aside from the wireless industry, the PUC has heard from Maine-based telecommunications providers such as GWI of Biddeford and the Telecommunications Association of Maine, as well as national players such as Verizon and AT&T.

“Generally speaking, the commenters concluded that the easiest path forward was not preservation of the 207 area code, but rather the acceptance of a new area code for Maine,” the PUC noted.

At some point, Maine will need an additional area code, Bartlett acknowledged. And while the PUC typically doesn’t examine issues of cultural identity, Bartlett said that in this instance there’s a public value to be considered.

“The amount of that value and how much expense should be incurred, those are more complicated questions,” he said.

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