Toronto getting set to add to the list of area codes

There was an episode of Seinfeld when Elaine lost her phone service and, upon getting it reconnected, was issued a 917 Manhattan area code rather than the old 212. This affront reduced her to “recent New Yorker” status, a decidedly unflattering position in that status-conscious city.

Will it be the same in Toronto? Will we ask, “Is that original six?”

A booming economy, a plethora of new ways to use phone lines and increased telco competition have all done their part to put Torontonians in the position they are now in. Sometime in the not-too-distant future (spring or early summer) new phone numbers issued in the Toronto region will be given the 647 area code.

This will be Canada’s first overlay code in which, in this case, existing numbers will remain 416 while new issues will be given the 647 area code.

“The reason for [the new area codes] is the plethora of new uses for telephones,” said Glenn Pilley of the Canadian Numbering Administrator, which is responsible for assigning the country’s new area codes. “There are alarm systems, Internet (modem) access, homes with two lines, and there’s a huge increase in the number of fax machines and pagers,” he added.

And of course cell phones, of which there are approximately one million in the Toronto region, he said.

“Ten years ago a family had one phone line and maybe one business line associated with them at work. Now, for example, I’ve got seven in my family.”

The surprising aspect to this whole story is that Toronto is not really out of 416 numbers. Approximately nine million seven-digit numbers can be issued, assuming no number starts with zero.

“We are actually not, even in 416, literally out of numbers; what we are out of is prefixes (the three digits that begin a seven digit number),” said Ian Angus, president of Angus Telemanagement Group in Ajax, Ont.

“The added complication is the arrival of competition,” Angus said. “The numbers tend to get assigned to carriers more quickly because there are more carriers.” Toronto has more than a dozen companies offering local telephone services, Angus explained.

Years ago, when there was essentially no telco competition, three-digit prefixes (or central office codes) were allotted in blocks of 10,000. If there is only one phone company, this does not pose a problem. You give a customer the next available number. But today, when a new telco enters a market it gets the access rights to all numbers associated with a given prefix. So a cell phone company may have the rights to six prefixes within the 416 area code. That amounts to 60,000 numbers, but if there are only 35,000 subscribers to the service, 25,000 numbers remain unused. The numbers will someday be assigned, but as we stand there are 416 numbers available, but only with specific providers.

Angus said there is a move to cut down the size of the blocks, but that the cost will be high. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission has ordered the industry to begin sharing the 10,000 number blocks since, in certain areas, the problem is worse than in Canada.

“California, which has the same population as Canada, has more than twice as many area codes,” Pilley said.

As a means of getting us accustomed to the inevitable, 10-digit dialling for all local calls, telcos now require dialling of the area code with the usual seven digit number, even if we are just calling across the street. From a consumer perspective, the changeover seems to be going smoothly.

“We found that when we first cut in the switches, 75 per cent of the people dialled 10 digits and [the other] 25 per cent dialled seven digits and got the message (asking them to add the area code),” said Ken Wigle, general manager of network planning for Bell Canada in London, Ont.

The Bell upgrade project was combined with the 905 project because it follows shortly. The 905 region is also quickly using up its numbers and will be adding the 289 area code later this year. The entire project required about 18 months of IT work and has gone off glitch-free, Wigle said.

“On the systems that we have, that project has gone very smoothly,” Wigle added.

So, other than the telcos, who has found 10-digit dialling to be a hassle?

“In general devices that have to do automatic dialling…(modems, fax machines), if you don’t have the area code you’ve got to put them in, ” Angus explained. “The one that has actually produced the most work are alarm systems.”

But overall, the conversion to 10 digits has not been a huge headache.

“One of the real advantages we had in Toronto with this conversion, which they didn’t have the couple of times when they did it in the U.S., is that it has been possible to dial 10 digits for local calls in Toronto for seven or eight years because of 905, and the result is that it was quite possible to phase in all of these changes on equipment,” Angus said.

So how long will the 647 and 289 additions hold out?

“Assuming no other changes [and] assuming current growth rate, and those are two really dangerous things to assume, 416 will need another area code somewhere around 2009,” Angus predicted.