Assignable 631 area code numbers are expected to run out...

Assignable 631 area code numbers are expected to run out by early 2016. A proposed “overlay" relief approach means new customers would be assigned the new area code and existing customers' numbers would remain the same. Credit: AP / Nam Y. Huh

Existing Suffolk phone customers would likely keep their 631 prefix when a new area code is set up to meet demand, unless there is an outcry to split the county with two area codes, a state official said Tuesday.

The North American Numbering Plan Administration, which oversees telephone numbering resources, prefers the "overlay" option of assigning the new prefix to new customers, unless the public voices an "overwhelming need" to split the county, said David Kitchen, a utility engineer appointed by the state Public Service Commission to lead the Riverhead hearing.

An additional area code is needed because the supply of unused 631 numbers is expected to be depleted by early 2016, the commission said in a report last month.

Kitchen said a geographic split would be "unequitable," leaving some customers alone while disrupting others, including businesses that would have to spend money to advertise their new numbers.

That happened in 1999, when phone users in Suffolk shifted to 631 while Nassau customers retained 516.

If the county were to be geographically split, a north-south line would be drawn through Smithtown and Islip towns, with phone users on one side keeping their numbers and those on the other side assigned new ones.

Kitchen said the overlay option barely has a downside -- people would have to dial 10 digits instead of seven, even if they're calling someone across the street.

Under this option, he said, authorities would ease the impact by assigning remaining 631 numbers and new area code numbers at the same time. Also, a phone recording would remind users to dial the area code first, he said.

The hearing, the first of four, including two more Wednesday, drew fewer than 10 people, and only two of them spoke, both businessmen against the split option because it could cost them money.

Recommendations will be made to the Department of Public Service Commission by early fall, with a possible decision shortly after, officials said.

Changing phone numbers would cost $500,000 for Electronix Systems, a Huntington Station business that specializes in burglar alarms and other security systems, said company vice president Larry Huff.

"It would be an economic burden for us," he said.

"To do a split would probably require us to visit 20,000 subscribers and reprogram those security systems to report the new number. In 1999 we had to do it to 12,000."

With Ellen Yan

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