Valley News – Will your phone contact list be ready when the 603 area code becomes mandatory?

By the end of the month, an unpleasant surprise will lurk in some phone calls, as New Hampshire ends 74 years of contact with people in the state without using the 603 area code.

“People need to be aware instead of being caught off guard,” said Mark Doyle, director of the New Hampshire Department of Safety’s emergency services and communications division. Otherwise, he said, they’ll hear that dreaded recording: “Your call cannot be completed as dialed.”

As you may already know, thanks to a warning from your telephone company, on October 28 the state will begin “10-digit dialing,” in which area code 603 must be used in front of all numbers. While not mandatory until next July, there’s no easy way to tell which calls need the area code and which don’t.

So, for all intents and purposes, October 24 will be the first time since 1947, when area codes were created, that seven digits won’t be enough.

The change comes due to the rollout of ‘988’ as the new national suicide hotline in July 2022. Like other three-digit emergency numbers, this will make it easier for people to ask for ugly.

Before the number can go into effect, however, something must be done about existing phone numbers that start with 988; otherwise, the dial-up telephone network will be confused. In New Hampshire, that includes hundreds of phone numbers in Portsmouth – hence the need to start every call with 603.

Ten-digit dialing is also coming to other states that have a single area code, including Vermont, where the city of Troy has 988 as its central. It doesn’t come to Maine, though, because that state has never used 988 as a prefix for a number. Massachusetts, with several area codes, already has 10-digit dialing in most places, which will not change.

The area code requirement will be an annoyance for those of us who forget it when calling or haven’t checked the ‘contacts’ list on their phone and made sure 603 proceeds to all New Hampshire numbers. This is much more of an issue for businesses or organizations with equipment that makes calls based on a database of numbers.

Verizon puts it this way in its announcement: “Any services, auto-dial equipment, or other types of equipment programmed to make calls to local 7-digit numbers will need to be reprogrammed to make calls to 10-digit numbers, including area code Some examples are: life safety systems and medical monitoring devices, PBXs, fax machines, internet dial-in numbers, fire or burglar alarm systems, other security systems or gates, speed dialers, lists contacts from mobile or other cordless phones, call forwarding settings, voice mail services and other similar functions.

If not done, it could even be dangerous. The 911 system, for example, depends on a database that links this hotline to local emergency services.

“We had to go in and rebuild the database that has those phone numbers, we’ve already gone ahead and dealt with that,” Doyle said.

The statewide Emergency Alert System’s massive database does not have this problem. It only connects to cell phones which, because they use a different network, usually need area codes.

The telephone numbers date back to 1879 in Lowell, Mass., when a measles epidemic decimated the town’s manual switchboard staff, forcing the creation of a system that could be used by less trained operators.

Depending on location, telephone numbers had three, four or five digits until the 1930s when the seven-digit system was created, consisting of a three-digit prefix associated with a central office followed by four linked digits to a specific line. In the 1950s, the first part of the prefix was associated with letters on the dial, so that a Concord number such as 225-1234 could be recalled as Capital-5-1234. This practice ended in the 1970s.

Area codes were created in 1947 to allow interstate calling without operator assistance. New Hampshire’s 603 was one of the original 86 area codes. At the turn of the millennium, it was feared that the state would soon need a second area code due to growth, but improvements in how phone numbers are distributed—combined with changes in number distribution due to cell phones – means the state will be fully covered by 603 for at least another decade.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or [email protected] or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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