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Western Pennsylvania getting third area code thanks to demand for digits

Jeremy Boren
| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 10:48 a.m.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission announced Friday it will implement the 878 area code in the 724 area code zone first because its supply of available phone numbers is nearly exhausted.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission announced Friday it will implement the 878 area code in the 724 area code zone first because its supply of available phone numbers is nearly exhausted.

Western Pennsylvania soon will need a third area code to quench demand for phone numbers from texting teenagers and constantly connected professionals who often juggle two cellphones, a land line and a fax number.

The state Public Utility Commission on Friday said phone service providers will begin assigning the 878 area code to new customers in the 724 area code first because its supply of available prefixes — the first three digits after the area code — is nearly exhausted.

The 724 area code covers Pittsburgh's suburbs, mostly outside Allegheny County. The 412 code is primarily Pittsburgh and much of Allegheny County.

It could be two months to a year before customers begin receiving 878 numbers, said Denise McCracken, a PUC spokeswoman.

“It really depends how fast the remaining numbers are taken,” McCracken said. “This is one more warning that says the 724 area code is nearing exhaustion.”

It's unclear how many new phone numbers are being ordered because Verizon and AT&T declined to release customer statistics for the area, saying the data are proprietary. But the area is gobbling up numbers, even though the population of Allegheny County, with 1.2 million people, fell 4.6 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, and Pittsburgh lost 8.6 percent to settle at about 305,000. Population in 10 counties in the 724 area code decreased by 1.8 percent.

Phone companies will assign the new digits on a first-come, first-served basis.

McCracken said no specific suburbs are slated to get the new area code first. New customers in the 412 area will get 878 once its numbering options are almost gone.

The concept of an 878 area code has been around since 2000. The PUC planned to implement the code more than a decade ago but decided to wait until 724 and 412 options were nearly depleted. Customers will keep existing area codes and telephone numbers, according to the PUC.

Christian Kinkela, co-owner of Shop 412 in the SouthSide Works, said he's not worried about the new area code's influencing demand for his store's T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts and shoes imprinted with stylized versions of Pittsburgh's original area code. The store won't produce 878 apparel.

“This is the only place that matters to us,” Kinkela said. “It's a way to identify with an area without always having to wear a Steelers jersey or something. It's a way to feel that you're representing (Pittsburgh) without being so damn loud all the time.”

The PUC said the proliferation of cellphones and additional land lines increased demand for phone numbers.

“We attribute it to the fact that some people have up to four phone numbers now,” McCracken said. “People have work numbers, cell numbers, personal cell numbers and fax numbers. It's really the fact that people themselves have more numbers today.”

In 2012, CTIA, a wireless provider trade group, reported there were 321.7 million U.S. wireless subscriber connections — more than the country's population of 315.4 million. The number of teens who text with friends daily shot up 16 percentage points from 2008 to 2009 from 38 percent to 54 percent, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

John Manning, senior director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration, said there is only one unused phone number prefix remaining in the 724 area code of 800 potential prefixes. He said once the final prefix's 10,000 possible numbers (0000 to 9999) run out, customers will start seeing the 878 area code.

There are just more than 105 prefixes available in the 412 area code.

There could be up to 8 million telephone numbers per area code, Manning said, but the actual number is less than that because of restrictions on using certain sensitive prefixes, such as 911.

“A lot of folks think when an area code is exhausted, it's because every single telephone number within the area code is assigned, and that's not the case,” he said. “It's exhausted when all of the prefixes are assigned. So when you assign that last prefix, that area code is exhausted.”

It's the North American Numbering Plan Administration's job to warn state utility commissions that a new area code needs to be activated.

Until 1997, Pennsylvania had four area codes: 814, 412, 717 and 215. The PUC added five between 1997 and 2000, including the 724 area code in Western Pennsylvania. Phone callers have had to dial 10 digits in Western Pennsylvania since 2001.

Fifteen years ago, the PUC implemented an area code “conservation plan” to extend the life of the 724 and 412 codes.

It did so by releasing blocks of 1,000 phone numbers to cell and land-line telephone providers at a time, instead of blocks of 10,000 numbers.

The smaller portions forced carriers to use every number available before seeking more.

Even with the conservation efforts and the 878 area code, the Numbering Plan Administration estimates in a report submitted to the PUC that the 412, 724 and 878 area codes will exhaust their supply of phone numbers by 2028.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or

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