Residents of the 336 area code may have to make some adjustments in the next few years @Daniel_Schere

Over the next couple of years, not all Triad residents will be able to say they are from the 336.

The telecommunications company Neustar, which is contracted with the Federal Communications Commission to provide phone numbers to area codes throughout the country, estimates it will exhaust its number supply for the region by 2016. This means the 336 will either be divided into two separate area codes, or an overlay will occur where some numbers within the region will begin with a different three-digit code.

North Carolina Utilities spokesman Sam Watson said they typically get notifications from Neustar between two and two and a half years before the number supply is scheduled to be exhausted. He said they received a similar notice in 2000, but they were able to find ways to extend the life of the 336 until they were notified again in July 2013.

The commission held public hearings last month to educate the community and let them know of the options they are considering.

The commission is responsible for determining the geographic boundaries for all of the state’s area codes, while Neustar keeps track of the numbers.

“We don’t say ‘hmm, we’d like area code number… you know. So the only thing that we do is we establish the boundaries for those area codes,” Watson said.

Similar changes have occurred with the 919 area code in the Triangle, which once encompassed a large portion of the state but has since seen several splits, including the 252 area code in Northeastern North Carolina and the 910 to the south. The 919 also underwent an overlay in 2011 when the 984 area code was added to some addresses, requiring callers to dial 10 digits.

Watson said the overlay is the recommended option, but it would require residents to dial 10 digits. A report prepared by the commission states that the overlay is more advantageous because it avoids the hassle of using a combination of seven and 10 digit numbers when dialing, and it does not require anyone to change their phone number.

“While mandatory ten-digit dialing would be required between and within the old area code and the new area code, this disadvantage is mitigated in large part because each of the geographic split alternatives would require a significant increase in tendigit dialing by customers for local calls to nearby areas separated by a different area code,” it states. “Thus, the chief advantage of the geographic 2 split alternatives would be significantly diminished in regard to relief for the 336 area code.”

The original maps were drawn up in 2000 when the commission received its first notification and show three possible splits. One would create a small area code encompassing most of the urban Triad in Guilford and Forsyth Counties, leaving a larger area code surrounding it. The other maps show a boundary extending diagonally southwest through Rockingham County before curving through Guilford, Randolph and Davidson Counties. This would cause Greensboro and Winston-Salem to be located in separate area codes.

Watson said the commission has not yet decided which way to go.

“If that happened (overlay) they usually provide some way of optional 10-digit dialing and then they go to mandatory ten digit dialing in advance of when the numbers are supposed to run out, because really it’s all an estimate,” he said.

Watson said dialing the area code will become necessary in order for the phone companies to avoid confusion.

Landlines typically assume a caller is dialing 7 digits and apply that to the area code where it is physically located.

“Your next door neighbor may get the new area code and so in order for the switch from the phone company to know your dialing you can’t just dial the seven digits anymore,” he said.

Watson said when the commission does make a decision, they will provide information to the public through press releases and announcements from the phone companies.

“I would expect that it wouldn’t take too long,” he said. “I mean we need to keep this thing moving so that the administrator and the phone companies move forward with the plan, whatever option is selected.”

Thomas Foley, who is Neustar’s relief planner for its southeastern region, said area codes are exhausted when all existing number prefixes are used up, even if all numbers have not been used up.

“We forecast based upon history, the forecasts from carriers for their needs they provide us twice a year, and we forecast an exhaust of the area codes once prefixes run out,” he said.

Foley said some area codes around the country have been around since 1947, but some last as short as 20 years. The life of an area code depends on factors such as population growth, the local economy and technology.

He added that the merging of carriers in the mid-1990s, combined with the rise in cell phone purchases has created a large supply of phone numbers and accelerated the rate at which area codes can be exhausted.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago if you had three numbers that was a lot,” he said.

Foley said the 336 has been able to survive for so long as a result of number pooling—a process that involves splitting up number prefixes into smaller blocks, which can later be given to the phone companies.

“If you have a small carrier that has maybe 100 customers it doesn’t have use of 10,000 number prefixes,” he said.

Foley said each state’s utilities commission is responsible for implementing the type of relief when an area code is scheduled to be exhausted. The area codes will sometimes match geopolitical boundaries such as county lines, but not usually.

“The actual boundaries of area codes were set a long time ago and they were based on boundaries that the telephone companies set up in their system in their central office,” he said.

Foley said there are tradeoffs with both overlays and geographic splits, including the time spent by consumers reprogramming their phones.

“There’s a cost with it depending on the method of implementation,” Foley said. “Carriers have to program their switches so that it recognizes the area code.” !