PSC Acts to Delay Second Area Code in Montana

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The Montana Public Service Commission is trying to delay Montana’s need for a second area code.

The PSC asked the Federal Communications Commission about 18 months ago for a regulatory exemption that allows it to assign phone numbers to carriers in blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000, which would delay by at least a decade the need for a second area code in Montana.

Lee Newspapers of Montana reports the FCC approved the request three weeks ago and last week the PSC said it intended to adopt the new rules. It is allowing time for telephone companies to comment.

Montana’s supply of phone numbers with the 406 area code was forecast to run out in 2018. But under the new rules, it could last until at least 2028.

PSC Chairman Bill Gallagher said the FCC chastised the state agency for asking for the rule change too early. But commissioners felt they had to be “out front on this” because keeping the 406 area code saves businesses money and keeps an important icon for Montanans, he said.

“That (406 area code) is a sense of pride,” said Gallagher, R-Helena. “That means, ‘I’m a Montanan.’ Once you go to two area codes, you don’t have that sense of identity that you had before.”

The FCC order will allow the PSC to assign telephone numbers to carriers in blocks of 1,000 instead of 10,000, as they do now. Nearly 700 blocks of 10,000 numbers with the 406 area code have been allotted, leaving only 90 available as cellphone use increases.

But thousands of numbers within those 10,000-number blocks go unused and under current rules, can’t be reassigned. Of the 6.3 million numbers assigned in the 406 area code, 1.8 million are in use, Lee reported.

Under the FCC order, some 10,000 number blocks with 10 percent or fewer of their numbers in use can be returned to be reassigned to another carrier.

Industry groups support the move.

“Delaying the date when you exhaust 406 numbers is probably a good thing,” said Geoff Feiss with the Montana Telecommunications Association.

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