I never knew how fascinating area codes would be when I started researching the fact that Suffolk County, without a new area code, will run out of phone numbers by 2016.
Did you know that the original area code on Long Island, from 1947 until 1951, was not 516 but 914, which it shared with the Lower Hudson Valley? And the reason big cities all had original area codes with low numbers (New York 212, Chicago 312, Los Angeles 213) was because it took Great Aunt Muriel's rotary phone so long to spin back when she called those places long distance?
Now Long Island is about to get another area code, and we must pull together before we get such a horrible new one that people just quit calling us.
Suffolk County will run out of assignable phone numbers in 2016, according to John Manning, executive director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration.
At first I wondered how 1.5 million folks could run through 10 million phone numbers. If Suffolkers need six numbers apiece, our lives are too complex. But there aren't as many local numbers available in the 631 prefix as it seems.
"You can't start a local number with 1, because your phone will think it's long distance," Manning said. "And you can't start with zero because that would dial the operator." That's 2 million unavailable 631 numbers right there, plus you can't use numbers with prefixes like 911, 311, and 555.
Many numbers lie dormant because of the way they are parceled out to carriers, and subdivided for smaller geographic areas and . . . I could go on, but you get the point.
In theory, there are two options. The county could be geographically cut into two area codes, called a "split," and all the people within the area assigned the new code would get new phone numbers. Or the whole county could use both the new and old area codes. That's called an "overlay" and requires everyone in the county to dial 10 digits for every call.
And that's what will happen.
There are no more splits like the kind we had in 1999 when Nassau kept 516 and Suffolk switched to 631. The Numbering Plan Administration hasn't done that since 2007. The past 44 new area codes across the United States, Canada and the Caribbean have been the overlays and resulted in the 10-digit dialing for all phone calls in those areas.
New York's Public Service Commission will hold hearings over the next two days for folks to share feelings like: "If you change my number, I'm taking my tax dollars and moving to North Carolina" and "If I wanted to live like a 10-digit dialing animal, I would have stayed in New York City." Manning says it can get heated, but helps people understand how and why it must be done.
But there is a decision for which we could possibly be heard: what the new area code will be. A new code was selected for Suffolk, on a preliminary basis, several years ago, but what is it? Something awesome, like 987 or 789? Or is it a loser code, 384, say, or the detestable 261?
It's a secret and won't be official until the PSC tells the officials in charge it's OK with the number. That means we have an opportunity to get involved. Vote at newsday.com/areacodepoll to help pick an awesome new area code. And start thinking about one for Nassau, too. It will need an additional area code by 2020, and it's never too early to start browsing.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.