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What's in an area code?

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JEREMY HOBSON: What's in an area code? Those three digits can say a lot: where you are, how long you've been there, if it's a landline or a wireless number. New York City -- currently home to five different area codes -- is about to get a sixth. Come April, new numbers outside of Manhattan will be assigned area code 929. Marketplace's Alisa Roth gives us the 411.


Alisa Roth: There are about 40 million possible phone numbers in the New York City area. And they're starting to run out. It's not that New York's population is growing so fast. There's just more demand for phone numbers.

John Manning works for Neustar. The company hired by the government to assign area codes.

John Manning: Years ago, we used to say, well, everybody was getting a second line. Then they were getting fax numbers. And now it seems like everybody in the family has a wireless telephone number.

The U.S. phone system is based on seven digits. So the only way to add numbers is to keep adding area codes. Manning says that costs money all around. Phone companies have to reprogram their switches. And it can cost businesses, too.

Manning: Changing stationery, signage, and things like that -- just getting acclimated.

There's an unofficial hierarchy to the current area codes. In New York, 212 is at the top; newer ones, like 347 and 646, are at the bottom. Roger Entner is a telecom analyst at the Nielsen Company. He says the value of an area code may all be in your head. But it does say something.

Roger Entner: 212. It means you've been in New York for a long time. Especially if you have a 212 cell phone number. Because everybody else has 917.

And individuals aren't the only ones who care: Las Vegas tried -- unsuccessfully -- to win the lucky area code 777. In Florida, the county around Cape Canaveral did manage to get the area code 321.

In area code 212, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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