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Changes Coming In The 850 Area Code

Jennie McKeon

The 850 area code is running out of numbers, and that means changes are coming to the way most of us make local phone calls. A public hearing is set for Friday in Tallahassee to answer questions about the coming change in the 850 LATA, which stands for Local Access and Transport Area. That’s communications-speak for a local calling area.

That’s where the North American Numbering Plan Administration comes in. It’s an agency created in the 1990s after the break up AT&T and the creation of competition for phone service. “Opening it up to competition meant a neutral administrator was needed. And it’s ultimately an FCC jurisdiction” said Beth Sprague is the director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration. “NANPA is required to put our forecasted exhaust projections of all area codes twice a year. And when we see an area code is within 36 months (of running out of numbers), we are required to get the industry together to formulate a recommended plan for relief.”

The 850 area code has only been around since 1995, when the Panhandle was split from the 904 area code. NANPA estimates all possible numbers combinations in the 850 code will be exhausted sometime in 2022. That means a new area code will be introduced to the region. However unlike past area code changes, this one will not mean your number will change. Sprague says instead of splitting the area code geographically, the new code will be overlaid onto the region. “There has not been an area code split since 2007. The area code overlay has been the preferred method. Technologically it’s easier, especially with the advent of all the apps, the phone apps the texts. Splits were getting to be really hard.”

In addition to the technological issues involved, a new area code meant businesses would have to redo their advertising and stationery to reflect the number change. And people would have to reprogram all those contacts in their phones. The biggest change is that all phone calls, even local calls, will require 10 digit dialing.

And looking ahead there could be bigger changes in the future. “The numbers are a finite resource, and they will run out. Right now we project the North American Numbering Plan will run out of numbers in approximately 2049. Which seems like it’s far away, but that could change.”

That’s because so many different devices, from cell phones to smart TVs to your utility meter are all assigned phone numbers for device-to-device communication. That means before 2049 arrives, the seven-digit phone number may become a quaint memory. “There are a couple of industry recommendations on how to expand the NANP and one of them is including another digit.”

In the meantime, the public hearing on the proposed new area code for the 850 calling area is scheduled for Friday afternoon at 1 at the Betty Easley Conference Center in Tallahassee. And if you’re wondering what the new area code will be, we don’t know yet. It will be announced by the state Public Service Commission sometime in early November. 

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.