The U.S. and its territories, Canada, Bermuda and 16 Caribbean countries all use a telephone numbering system called the “North American Numbering Plan.” You are familiar with it: a 3 digit “area code” followed by a seven digit phone number. This numbering plan was developed in the late 1940s. Originally, the numbering plan used 86 area codes with the largest metropolitan areas getting the area codes that took the least amount of time to dial on rotary telephones (NYC, 212, L.A. 213, Chicago 312, St. Louis 314). In the original plan a middle digit of zero indicated the area code covered an entire state/province, while area codes with a middle digit of one were assigned to states/provinces that were divided into more than one area code.
Over time, population increases required that additional area codes be used. Then in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a sharp rise in the need for even more area codes arose due to the huge expansion of the number of needed telephone numbers due to fax machines and cell phones and also due to the deregulation of the telephone industry.
Are we running out of phone numbers? Yes, but we still have a long way to go. The North American Numbering Plan gives us about 1.3 billion available phone numbers and as of the end of 2007 only about 600 million were being used. Of course, some area codes run out of phone numbers and new ones need to be added to the area.
While much of Europe and Asia uses separate area code prefixes for mobile phones, in the U.S. and most of Canada we still use mainly geographic prefixes (e.g. 312 means Chicago – whether it’s a land line or a cell phone). The 917 area code in NYC was originally planned to be used only for mobile phones, faxes and pagers, but a Federal Court struck down the ability to have an area code for a specific purpose.
With the portability of telephone numbers and many people giving up their landlines, the use of geographic prefixes is fading away. However, there is some evidence of “area code elitism” whereby people want to have certain prefixes. This has been most reported in NYC where the 212 area code is coveted as a status symbol. Many don’t want the 917 or 646 prefixes on their phones. Read more on 212 Elitism here: Manhattan Area Codes Multiply, but the Original, 212, Is Still Coveted.
Nationwide, there are reports of the original area codes being coveted and people willing to pay thousands of dollars to have those prefixes. In St. Louis, 314 is preferred over 636. In the bay area, it’s 415, LA 310, Miami’s 302. There is a business called phonenumberguy.com that sells access to phone numbers with coveted area codes. The most popular area codes people are willing to pay for: