Half a century ago, you could safely assume that everyone in your city or town had the same area code. In fact, even 20 years ago, in many places, getting a phone number was a seven-digit affair. However, these days, your next-door neighbor’s number could have a completely different area code than yours, despite having been assigned in the same place.
So, if you and your neighbor have the same ZIP code, why don’t your area codes match, too? Back in 1947, when the U.S. population was roughly half what it is now, AT&T and the Bell System devised a system called the North American Numbering Plan. Under the NANP, three-digit prefixes were assigned to specific geographic areas. This began with a group of 86 Numbering Plan Areas, or NPAs.
Twenty years after adopting the NANP, the United States and its territories had 129 NPAs. However, due to their three-digit length, each area code can only support just under eight million subscribers. That means that many major metropolitan areas, like New York and Los Angeles, had too many residents to be covered under a single area code. It’s also the reason why New York and Los Angeles’ primary area codes—212 and 213, respectively—are so close to one another. Giving these area codes to the two metropolitan areas customers were most likely to be calling meant less work for rotary phone-dialers. Areas with lower population density tended to get numbers that took a few mores spins.
However, it wasn’t just population growth that made single area codes insufficient. As fax machines, pagers, and cell phones became more prevalent, there simply weren’t enough phone numbers to assign under a single area code. This meant that your home phone and the fax machine at your local copy shop might have the same area code, but you and your neighbor might not.
Today, the odds that you and your neighbor share an area code are now lower than ever. According to the CDC, the percent of American homes that don’t have a landline now outnumbers those who do. In fact, while under 50 percent of U.S. homes still have a landline, 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone.
Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, you no longer have to sign up for a new cell number when you move. This means that your neighbor’s number might have a different area code and could have even been assigned many states and thousands of miles away. Luckily, if you feel like your phone is taking up time that could be better used, these 11 Easy Ways to Conquer Your Smartphone Addiction make a digital detox easy.
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