Area Code Exhaust Relief

As the number of telephones in use steadily increases, so does the demand for associated numbers. Specialty three-digit numbers - 411 for directory information, 911 for emergency services, 988 for suicide prevention - impact the available number combinations available for assignment in a given area at any given time. As these number combinations dwindle, the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA) steps in to alleviate shortages before all the potential number run out.

The use of all available numbers within an area code region is known as 'exhaust,' and NANPA prepares for this by filing an application with the Commission to manage the creation of additional numbers within an area code region. While historically, splitting one area code into two was an option, the NANPA more often creates what is called an overlay to remedy number shortages.


  • Frequently Asked Questions

    1. What is area code exhaust?
      • Area code exhaust occurs when an existing area code nears the assignment of all available phone numbers. The available combinations of numbers from seven digits plus an area code is massive, but not infinite. Once the combinations get low, plans to expand the available pool of numbers begins.
    2. What happens when we are close to an area code exhaust?
      • The NANPA contacts the Commission and industry to begin the relief planning process. It can take up to 36 months for the entire process to conclude and a new area code to be implemented.
    3. How are the numbering resources being depleted in area codes in Virginia?
      • Subscriber growth and the expansion of services requiring phone numbers eventually exhausts the numbering resources available with in an area code. Every cellular provider (this includes tablet devices with cellular service), wireline provider, alarm service provider, and voice over the internet (VoIP) phone service provider is assigned numbers from those available in each area code.
    4. Who decides to change my area code?
      • The Telecommunication Act of 1996 gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) jurisdiction over the telephone numbering plan in the United States. From this authority, the FCC established the NANPA. While the FCC delegated authority to state regulatory commissions to resolve matters involving implementing new area codes, the actual assignment of any new area code comes from the NANPA.
    5. What are the options to relieve area code exhaust situation?
      • The most common two options are:
        1. A geographic split: This would carve an existing area code zone into two separate areas. One region would retain the established area code and the other would convert to a newly assigned second area code.
        2. An all-services overlay: This would superimpose a newly assigned area code over the area currently covered by the existing area code. Once no new number combinations in the existing area code were available, a new three-digit area code would be assigned to new telephone service in the region.
      • A third option presents a kind of reverse overlay hybrid:
        1. A boundary elimination overlay: This option eliminates the geographic boundary between existing area codes, creating a sort of 'reverse overlay' in which either of two existing area codes can be assigned to new numbers. This option expands the availability of numbers, but does not prolong the eventual exhaust as much as either of the more common options. 
      • What are the pros and cons of each option?
        • Geographic Split
          • Pros:
            • Maintains 7-digit dialing within area that remains in the existing area code
          • Cons:
            • A portion, usually half, of the geographic area covered by the existing area code would have to change their phone numbers to incorporation the new area code
            • Financial impact to businesses in new area code
            • Customers would need to update family, friends, and business associates with new area code and phone number information
            • Requires a longer implementation time by industry and is more costly
        • All-Services Overlay
          • Pros:
            • All existing customers would retain their current area code; new numbers would be assigned with a new three-digit code
            • Less confusion and easier education process
            • Less financial impact on businesses
            • Does not split cities or counties into separate area codes
            • Moves customers to universal 10-digit dialing
            • Minimizes call routing issues, especially with ported numbers
          • Cons:
            • Local calls would require 10-digit dialing
            • Customers would have to reprogram auto-dialing equipment
            • Cost to update signage and printed material from 7-digit to 10-digit
        • NPA Elimination Boundary Overlay Alternatives
          • Pros:
            • Eliminates need to open a new area code
          • Cons:
            • Boundary elimination alternatives have shorter lives than the all-services overlay. 
            • Impacts a larger quantity of customers than the all-services overlay or the geographic split.
            • Requires customers served by both area codes to dial 10 digits where otherwise they wouldn’t be subjected to area code relief for another 30 years.
      • If the Commission decides on a geographic split, would existing customers in the newly assigned area code be required to change their phone number?
        • Yes.
      • If an NPA Elimination Boundary Overlay is ordered, would all current customers keep their current phone numbers?
        • Yes
      • If an all services overlay is ordered, would all current customers keep their current phone numbers?
        • Yes.
      • How would an all-services overlay affect customer dialing habits?
        • Under an all-services overlay, 10-digit dialing would be a requirement. In a contiguous geographic area where only one area code exists, that area code is assumed to be part of the phone number by default. Number 555-1234, for example, is assigned to only one unique account in a geographic boundary assigned to that single area code. Where two or more area codes are assigned within the same geographic area, the area code cannot be assumed. Using the same example, 555-1234 could be assigned to two separate users; one in each of the two area codes. Therefore, additional information (dialing the area code) is required to correctly route calls to the intended call recipient. While this does require the dialing of three additional digits, with today’s technology, most of our devices store a majority of our contact information. Therefore, there will be very little change for most individuals.
      • How has Virginia handled this issue in the past?
        • Most recently the Commission addressed the exhaust of the 757, 540, and 804 area codes by issuing an all-services overlay option in all cases. These actions added the 948, 526, and 686 area codes, respectively.
        • In 1996, the 804 area code went through a geographic split to add the 540 area code. Fourteen years later, 804 split again, adding the 434 area code. In1998, the Commission approved an all services overlay adding the 571 area code to the established 703 area code in northern Virginia. While the Commission has approved both options in past cases, it should be noted that there has not been a geographic split implemented in the United States since 2006 (in New Mexico).
      • Once the Commission makes a decision, what happens?
        • A final order from the Commission sets the method for relief and the schedule for implementing the approved plan. Both the NANPA and the Commission provide notice of the impending changes well in advance, providing impacted users time to prepare.
      • How can I comment on the issues raised by area code exhaust relief cases?
        • As part of its judicial process, the Commission notices cases and invites comments. There are different ways to file comments in cases before the Commission. In issuing an Order for Notice and Comment on an application for relief, the Commission invites public participation in a case.This notice to the public includes a summary of the issues and provides a period of time frame for receiving comments. Comments may be mailed directly to the State Corporation Commission, c/o Document Control Center, P.O. Box 2118, Richmond, Virginia 23218-2118, or by filing electronically via the Commission's website. Regardless of how they are submitted, comments must include reference to a case number to ensure the comments are recorded in the correct proceeding at the Commission.
      • Is there someone I can contact with any questions?
        • Yes. If you have questions about an area code exhaust relief case before the Commission, staff with the SCC's Division of Public Utility Regulation can help. Call 804-371-9611 locally, or toll-free within Virginia at 1-800-552-7945 (select Option 4 for the Division of Public Utility Regulation).