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Secondary Market Expected as DC 202's Near Exhaustion

An area code overlay coming to the District of Columbia may be one of the most significant in years for major metropolitan areas and could lead to a secondary market for 202 numbers, experts told us last week. The yet-to-be-announced new number will mean 10-digit dialing will be required in the District, a change that will require education, said Betty Ann Kane. She previously chaired the Public Service Commission and the North American Numbering Council (NANC).

The North American numbering plan administrator projects numbers in the D.C. area code will run out in Q3 2022 without relief (see 2008210026). The PSC held a hearing Sept. 1. “We are awaiting further direction from the Commission's Office of the General Counsel regarding next steps [and] a draft order,” emailed PSC External Affairs Director Cary Hinton. “No definite schedule for a decision.”

We knew it was coming,” though 202 numbers “lasted for quite a while,” said Kane in an interview. “It’s significant” and shows how the capital city has grown, she said, noting Washington has high business concentration and a bigger population than several states. The 202 numbers are a point of “hometown pride,” and Kane could see people and businesses wanting to hold onto them. When she relocated to Maine, she transferred to a VoIP phone the number she had since she moved to Washington in 1967: “I’m not giving it up.”

It’s good the District is starting the process early, said Kane. “That transition and that education process is going to be the most important thing.” Businesses may need to adjust legacy systems designed for seven-digit dialing, she said. While the shift to cellphones will make consumer education about 10-digit dialing easier than it was in the ‘90s when Baltimore switched from seven digits, there remain “pockets of people with landlines, with answering machines set up,” she said. D.C. should emphasize it won’t cost more to dial 10 digits or to dial another D.C. number with the new area code, since some elderly people who remember paying high rates for long-distance calls might be confused, she said.

Generally, these overlays go well,” emailed National Regulatory Research Institute Deputy Director Sherry Lichtenberg. “The biggest issue is the change to 10-digit dialing.” Some are loath to give up seven-digit dialing, while PBX systems must be reprogrammed, which is "apt to cause some problems,” she said.

One broker of New York City 212 numbers is eyeing 202. David Day, manager of 212areacode.com, also sells 305, 310 and 415 numbers, and “202 will certainly be next,” he said. Capital city numbers could become a status symbol in the same way as 212, since D.C. has similar demographics. Lobbyists and other political groups may desire 202 numbers, “though it might take some time as 212 only became exclusive years after the overlay of 646,” he said. Day still sees strong demand for 212 numbers, though business slowed during the pandemic, with fewer new businesses.

The overlay will “absolutely” mean business demand specifically for 202 numbers, said Paul Faust, president of vanity phone number company RingBoost. As carriers run out of whatever supply of 202 numbers is still on hand, getting those numerals “will take a little more work” and involve going through a broker, but “the business owners that care will find one,” he said. A random 202 number from a third-party broker could run as little as $100, while a number with a good pattern -- such as ending in 2222 -- would be multiples higher, he said.

Having a legacy area code often carries a cachet, as it can denote longevity, Faust said. “You won’t find established businesses that want [Boston overlay area code] 857,” he said. The consumer market is less affected, as individuals tend to keep an old number even when moving, he said. Once Washington's plan is in place, businesses with excess 202 numbers will likely release them back to carriers, give them to friends or sell them, he said.

NANC should investigate if people are profiting, said Kane. Numbers are allocated to carriers, and “they’re supposed to be turned back by the customer to the carrier,” she said. “For a person to take their phone number and transfer it to someone else is ... not legal and not provided by the rules.”

NANC Chairwoman Jennifer McKee of NCTA emailed that the council doesn’t have a role investigating or enforcing individual customers’ numbers usage because it’s a federal advisory committee that looks mostly at more technical issues about numbers, usually at the FCC’s request, and then makes recommendations. The FCC emailed Friday it "has explicit rules prohibiting warehousing, hoarding, and brokering of toll-free numbers."

Don’t expect phone numbers to go away anytime soon, said Kane: Letters and words raise language issues, whereas “numbers are universal.”