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Is your phone contact list ready when the 603 area code becomes mandatory?

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

This article was first published in the Concord Monitor on Oct. 2.

“People need to be aware instead of being blind-sided,” said Mark Doyle, director of the New Hampshire Department of Safety Division of Emergency Services and Communications. Otherwise, he said, they’ll hear that dreaded recording: “Your call cannot be completed as dialed.”

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

So for all practical purposes, Oct. 24 will be the first time since 1947, when area codes were created, that seven digits will no longer be enough.

The change is happening because of the rollout of “988” as a new national suicide hotline in July 2022. Like other three-digit emergency numbers, this will make it easier for people to reach out for help.

Before the number can go into effect, however, something has to be done about existing phone numbers that begin with 988; otherwise, the switched telephone network will get 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 town of Troy has 988 as an exchange. It’s not coming to Maine, however, because that state has never used 988 as a prefix to any number. Massachusetts, with multiple area codes, already has 10-digit dialing in most places, which won’t change.

The area code requirement will be an annoyance for those of us who forget it when calling or who haven’t gone into the “contacts” list on their phone and made sure 603 proceeds all the New Hampshire numbers. It’s much more of a problem for companies or organizations with equipment that makes calls based on a database of numbers.

Verizon puts it this way in their announcement: “All services, automatic dialing equipment, or other types of equipment that are programmed to complete calls to 7-digit local numbers will need to be reprogrammed to complete calls to 10-digit numbers, including the area code. Some examples are: life safety systems and medical monitoring devices, PBXs, fax machines, Internet dial-up numbers, fire or burglar alarm systems, other security systems or gates, speed dialers, mobile or other wireless phone contact lists, call forwarding settings, voicemail services, and other similar functions.”

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

“We had to go in and rebuild the database that houses those phone numbers, We’re already gone ahead and handled that,” said Doyle.

The massive database for the statewide emergency alert system doesn’t have this problem. It only connects with cell phones, which because they use a different network have typically required area codes.

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

Depending on the location, phone 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 digits linked to a specific line. By the 1950s, the first part of the prefix was associated with letters on the dial, so a Concord number such as 225-1234 could be remembered as Capital-5-1234. That practice ended by 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. There were concerns at the start of the milllenium that the state would soon need a second area code because of growth, but improvement in the way phone numbers are handed out – combined with changes in number distribution due to cell phones – means the state will be entirely covered by 603 for at least another decade.

David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

Corrected: October 25, 2021 at 9:32 AM EDT
Due to an editing error, this article was attributed to the New York Times' David Brooks. We've updated the article and regret the error.