How many times did you have to hang up and try again before you remembered to always dial “402” to make a local call? How many times did you put the phone down a little harder than you needed to?
Callers in east and north-central Nebraska were forced to change their dialing habits last year, when the Nebraska Public Service Commission required using the area code even for local calls.
It turns out the change — put in place to prepare for adding a new area code to the region — didn't need to happen so soon.
The supply of 402 numbers isn't running out as fast as expected in 2009, when officials laid the groundwork for the new 531 area code, saying at the time that it could be needed as soon as spring 2011.
To prepare, businesses and residents in the 402 area have been required since February 2011 to dial 10-digit numbers.
The extra dialing was premature — along with the costs businesses incurred to make changes to automated dialing systems. Demand for new numbers slowed during and after the recession because of slower growth in business and housing.
There are still lots of 402 numbers — 270,000 as of this week — that haven't been allocated to phone service providers to give out to customers. And there are thousands more held in stock by providers that haven't yet been assigned to individuals or businesses.
“The demand is probably reflective of the economy,” said Joe Cocke, senior area code relief planner for the North American Numbering Plan Administration, which oversees area codes. “We've seen this in all the area codes across the nation.”
Cocke said he has no estimate of when “531” could be needed. “It could be a couple more years.”
It all depends on how fast the economy recovers and on how new technology affects demand. For example, a new or expanded call center would claim a lot of numbers at once. And one recent request asked for 20,000 numbers based in Minden, Neb., to be used for OnStar vehicle emergency systems.
Within 402, there are still 27 unused prefixes — the three-digit numbers that come after the area code — according to the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Each prefix allows for 10,000 telephone numbers. The commission doesn't plan to start assigning numbers with the new area code until there are just 10 “402” prefixes left.
“We thought we would hit the 10 remaining numbers by now or before now,” said Gene Hand, the commission's director of the communications department.
Hand said the commission in 2009 acted on the best information it had at the time.
“If we knew what we did today, we probably would have delayed doing it,” he said.
Hand said that without commission efforts to slow distribution of 402 numbers over the last decade, the new area code would have been needed as early as 2000.
All of Nebraska had 402 phone numbers when the area code system was developed in 1947. In 1955, Nebraska was split into two, with the Panhandle, central and south-central regions assigned 308, while the rest retained 402.
Officials initially gave the codes with a zero in the middle — the ones that took the most time to drag around a rotary dial and wait for it to come back — to smaller-population states with just one code. Big cities, Cocke said, got the shortest-to-dial area codes — think 212 for New York, 312 for Chicago.
By 1998, projections showed that 402 numbers would be exhausted within two years, so the Nebraska Public Service Commission implemented conservation measures such as assigning new numbers to service providers in blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000. In the past, even a small town like Hand's hometown of Edgar, with fewer than 500 residents, was assigned its own three-digit prefix with 10,000 total number possibilities. That resulted in a sense of community identity associated with the numbers, but lots of unused combinations.
Regulators also have become more strict about allocating new numbers, Cocke said. Service providers have to certify a need, and numbers can be reclaimed if not used quickly enough.
The conservation measures delayed the need for a new area code for a decade. But in 2009, projections again showed that new 402 numbers would not be available within two years. The commission considered several solutions, including splitting the 402 area into two. The decision was that an overlay system with two codes would be less disruptive because it wouldn't require anyone to change their numbers.
But it does require 10-digit dialing, and making the switch in 2011 was easier for some callers than others.
“That was one nightmare I'll never forget,” said Chris Malmberg, owner of Omaha Security Systems. The provider of home and business security systems had to send all of its customers a letter and pay workers extra to spend a weekend changing the numbers associated with more than 800 security system panels.
“It really cost me a lot of money” — more than $5,000.
Fortunately the work was not wasted. Hand said 10-digit dialing still will be necessary, just not right away. There are no plans to go back to seven-digit dialing.
There are a number of reasons that requests for new phone numbers could have slowed, Hand said.
“I think you could make a connection to the general health of the economy,” he said.
New laws allowing for number “portability” — meaning customers can keep a phone number if they move or get a new cellphone — mean less demand, especially as more households drop land lines.
As business growth slowed, so did the demand for phone numbers that are associated with each ATM machine, credit card swipe device or RedBox video rental stand. Businesses also need fewer numbers if they hire fewer people or transact more sales via the Internet. And consolidations in the telecommunications industry mean fewer companies requesting blocks of numbers.
Use of Nebraska numbers could accelerate as the economy recovers or because of increased technology use. And once the new 531 area code is in place, the fresh supply of numbers is likely to draw interest.
Hand said, for example, that western Nebraska's 308 area code has become a “target” for service providers that want big blocks of consecutive numbers, such as that OnStar request.
But western Nebraskans don't have to worry that 308 will be used up soon. As of this summer, there were still more than 4 million available numbers in that area code, out of about 7.5 million possible usable numbers — probably enough to last until 2036.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1336, email@example.com.