A new area code could be costly for some businesses

07/15/2014 6:41 PM |
A handful of residents spoke at a forum Tuesday about the upcoming shortage of area codes. (Credit: Claire Leaden)

A handful of residents spoke at a forum Tuesday about the upcoming shortage of area codes. (Credit: Claire Leaden)

The possibility of a new area code replacing 631 for part of Suffolk County may be viewed as an annoyance for some. After all, who wants go through their phone to update numbers?

For Larry Huff, the potential change also comes with a more substantial downside: a price tag upward of $500,000.

Mr. Huff, the vice president of Electronix Systems in Huntington Station, spoke during a public hearing Tuesday afternoon in Riverhead where representatives from the New York State Public Service Commission discussed potential remedies to the predicted area code shortfall. 

Mr. Huff spoke against splitting the area code, which would divide a new territory similar to how all of Suffolk County changed from 516 to 631 in 1999.

“To do a split would probably require our company to visit 20,000 subscribers and reprogram those security systems and life safety systems to conform to the new number if we are in the new area code range,” Mr. Huff said.

He estimated that could cost his company $500,000.

Mr. Huff was one of a handful of people who attended the meeting. Mark Amendolare of Bellringer Communications in Southampton echoed Mr. Huff’s sentiment.

In 1999, Mr. Amendolare said, the change to 631 cost his company about $325,000 and “a lot of man hours.”

“I hope that you guys take into consideration the factors and costs in doing this and hopefully you’ll make the right decision,” he said.

Prior to the public hearing portion at the Suffolk County Center, the Public Service Commission detailed the looming problem. The region is running out of central office codes, the middle three-digit part of phone numbers, which are assigned to specific geographic regions. So the 631 number itself is not running out, but the number of central office codes that can be assigned to the 631 area code, according to David Kitchen, a utility engineer with the commission who gave the presentation.

Only about 64 central office codes remain, about eight percent of what the region began with in 1999 when 631 was implemented.

Mr. Kitchen said an increase in carriers and technology usage has contributed to the rapid use of codes.

“Some things that you wouldn’t think use a phone number — like 3G or 4G tablets — do use them,” he said. “And, once a code is assigned, it can’t be shared.”

The North American Numbering Plan Administration predicted, based on industry forecasts, that the codes will be exhausted in the first quarter of 2016 at the latest. Mr. Kitchen said he did a separate analysis that confirmed that timetable.

There are currently two options: an overlay or a geographic split, which Mr. Kitchen said were the only two choices. An overlay would mix in a new area code within the 631 region.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have an option here, to either not do anything or really do anything else, because there are ‘industry guidelines,’ really hard and fast rules, that we all have to do everything the same way or the telephones won’t work properly,” Mr. Kitchen said.

An overlay would have no effect on the existing numbers. The drawback, Mr. Kitchen said, would be that current 631 residents would have to type in the 10-digit number (area code included) for every call they make, even within the 631 region.

For a geographic split, Suffolk County would be further separated into two zones will a line straight down from Smithtown to Islip. One side would keep 631.

It hasn’t been determined which side would be assigned a new code.

The 516 area code was first assigned to Nassau and Suffolk in 1951. Every other overlay in New York has been done in New York City. When asked by an audience member, Mr. Kitchen said that a geographic split hasn’t been put in place since 2007 in Texas.

Representatives from the Public Service Commission said they weren’t leaning one way or another as to which route to take.

“We’re trying to make this as painless as possible,” Mr. Kitchen said. “It won’t be painless, but we’re trying to minimize the impact. I need you to help me to help you.”

The informational forum and public hearing was one of four between Tuesday and Wednesday. Other forums are in Holbrook, Smithtown and Huntington Station.

Residents can voice their opinion by visiting dps.ny.gov and entering case 14-C-0182. Or email secretary@dps.ny.gov or call 1-800-355-2120. Comments must be submitted by July 31.