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212 area code in danger of losing exclusivity

One of Manhattan's status symbols, a telephone number starting with 212, would lose some of its exclusivity under a U.S. move to sever the link between geography and area codes.

Voice-over-Internet providers led by Vonage Holdings Corp. want direct access to the national pool of unused numbers. That would end their reliance on middlemen tied to area codes and offer new freedom to assign numbers regardless of location.

With the change would go a bit of urban culture celebrated in television's "Seinfeld," when character Elaine Benes schemes to get a dead neighbor's 212 number, and in the "Sex and the City" movie, in which Carrie Bradshaw wails she's "a 917 gal" who deserves New York's oldest mobile area code.

"I'm very dead set on a 917 or 212, because I'm not one of the new people," said Diana Mitchell, a sales and rental agent with broker Citi Habitats, based in Manhattan.

A 212 number shows clients "I'm not sitting in some borough somewhere," Mitchell said in an interview. "They think, and I immediately think, 'office in Manhattan.' " Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski wants to let Vonage directly draw numbers as a trial while the agency considers rules to let more companies do the same. Vonage, in a petition, told the agency direct access to numbers would cut its spending on leasing numbers from carriers.

The proposal "would put us on a path to delink numbers from geography," Genachowski said at a March 20 news conference. "But it's not about the delinking as much as it's about ensuring that any entity that's providing a communications service has access to numbers." Trial Number Vonage, based in Holmdel, N.J., now buys access to numbers including their area codes from middlemen, such as Level 3 Communications Inc., that have government authorization to pull from the pool maintained by the North American Numbering Plan Administration, a neutral overseer run by NeuStar Inc., based in Sterling, Va. Level 3 opposes the change.

Phone companies long ago took custody of the entire 212 pool of more than 7 million numbers, John Manning, senior director at the numbering administration, said in an interview.

About 19 percent of numbers in the 212 area code were available in 2009, among the lowest percentages in the United States, according to an FCC report.

"If you're in the right location with the right carrier at the right time, you can get them," Manning said.

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