Preserving a brand

The 406 area code has become increasingly synonymous with Montana. The number's branded on T-shirts and bumper stickers. But the amount of available 406 phone numbers is dwindling, and the Montana Public Service Commission finds itself implementing "number conservation measures."

In October, the PSC unanimously voted to petition the Federal Communications Commission for authority to enact such measures, which are intended to "ensure that the public is protected from unnecessary costs and confusion related to area code splits," says PSC Commissioner Gail Gutsche, of Missoula.

Theoretically, Montana has 7,760,000 telephone numbers in its lone area code. Considering that the state's population totals less than one million, it would seem it's decades away from running out. But it's more a matter of how many prefixes—the three-digit number after 406—have been assigned to phone carriers than how many phone numbers are actually in use. And Montana's 47 carriers have used them inefficiently. They've collectively assigned just 26 percent of their numbers, the third lowest rate in the country.

The PSC reports that only 100 prefixes—or 13 percent—remain out of the 776 prefixes originally available. It projects that Montana will run out of 406 numbers in 2018.

"This is not imminent," Gutsche says. "And that's why we are working now to do number conservation so we can postpone as long as possible splitting our area code. At some point we may need to do it."

The most crucial proposed number conservation measure, Gutsche says, is something called "thousand-block number pooling." It means blocks of 1,000 telephone numbers within the same prefix can be assigned to different carriers, instead of one carrier receiving an entire 10,000-number prefix. That, Gutsche says, "will easily do the job." The FCC requires the practice in densely populated areas.

In 2009, Google began acquiring 406 numbers (on a keypad 406 spells G-0-O) to use as routing numbers for its Google Voice service, but it's unclear if that's contributed to the problem.

The PSC is accepting comments on the proposed number conservation measures until Jan. 6.

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