POSTED ON MARCH 30, 2011:
A new area code comes calling this week. Will 918ers embrace change or hang up on 539?
More than 27 counties and 250 towns make up the 918 area code. These three beloved digits convey a geographical identity of its own, distinctive and vastly unlike Oklahoma's other area codes, 405 and 580.
But two words have threatened the 918's existence: number exhaust.
Oklahoma anticipated the depletion, and in January 2010 the Oklahoma Corporation Commission approved a plan to add a new number into the mix: 539.
The new area code comes online Friday, April 1 and brings with it various questions and issues for number-loyal locals.
Will 539 simplify communication or create an identity crisis?
Since 1953, Northeastern Oklahoma and prominent cities like Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Jenks, Owasso and Sand Springs have called 918 its own.
The 918 was established 58 years ago after a so-called "split plan" divided area code 405, creating not only an area code, but a geographical identity. After that point, Tulsa, the 918's largest city, became synonymous with the area code, generating phrases from its inhabitants such as, "Don't Hate The 918."
Because of this love, many locals are reluctant to believe that a number exhaust is really occurring and even more question if a new area code is necessary.
According to a 2009 United States Census Bureau estimate, Tulsa County's population was 601,961. This seemingly small number reinforces the notions of reluctant Tulsans wary of the new number, but Matt Skinner of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission said that the need for the new area code isn't about population.
"There are a great many things that require phone numbers nowadays and they are the things that are obvious such as cell phones and of course a lot of people have just more phones period in their homes and fax machines and things like that," Skinner said.
Other devices that need and use phone numbers aren't so apparent, he said, including ATMs, inventory control systems, burglar and burglar alarms.
"There are many, many, many devices out there in industry, particularly, that require massive amounts of phone numbers that are not telephones at all," Skinner said. "This isn't really a question of population, it's really a question of equipment and every day the need for more and more numbers goes up as more and more equipment requires phone numbers."
As the reasoning is explained, it is helpful to first understand how the 539 will be implemented and issued.
Oklahoma's new area code is being added through an "overlay play," a first for Oklahoma. The state's previous area code addition -- 580 -- was added by dividing up the 405 area code. This split plan, as opposed to an overlay plan, changes all existing numbers to establish a single code in particular geographic areas.
"Another question we get quite often from Tulsa specifically and that is, 'Why didn't Oklahoma City, when it had its number exhaust in the '90s, get an overlay instead of a split?' The answer is because the technology didn't exist then," Skinner said. "It wasn't an option."
In short: 918 will remain intact, but from April 1 on, all new phone numbers issued in the 918 area will instead be issued the new 539 area code.
Locals can still request the 918 area code after April 1, Skinner said, but 539 will be the default area code issued to new numbers if a specific request isn't made. The 918 area code will be issued as long as numbers remain free in the cache. Current computer models predict that 918 will be completely depleted in the fourth quarter of 2012, said Joe Cocke, a relief planner with the North American Numbering Plan Administration, which coordinates phone numbering between 19 North American countries.
Phone numbers contain prefixes -- the three digits between the dashes -- that are issued to telephone exchanges in a manner that's somewhat geographic. Cocke said some prefixes will run out of their allotment of 918 area codes before others.
Even after 2012, the 918 won't completely disappear, Skinner said. Previously issued 918 numbers will return to the queue as people move and businesses close.
"For those people who are having problems parting with the 918 area code right now, my answer is you don't have to," he said. "You're not going to part with the 918 area code. You're still going to have the 918 area code. It's not going anywhere. That's the beauty of the overlay. With the split, there would be people who would have to change their phone numbers, period. But, all existing phone numbers stay the same."
Even though the new area code will start being issued this week, Skinner said 539 won't be widely seen or used for quite some time.
To prepare for adding the new area code, Oklahoma's phone system has gone through a couple changes. The first came in August 2010. Dubbed a "permissive calling period," this allowed the dialing of numbers with or without including the area code.
The system changed again on March 5, 2011, when statewide phone exchanges started requiring full 10-digit dialing, even between numbers within the same area code.
The impending combination of a new area code and mandatory 10-digit dialing confused many Oklahomans who were concerned about incurring charges for simply calling a neighbor with a 539 area code if they were dialed from a 918 number.
The Corporation Commission's No. 1 question: "Will there be new long distance charges because there's another area code."
"The answer is, 'No,'" Skinner said. "What was a local call before will still be a local call even if it has a different area code associated with it."
“There are many, many, many devices out there in industry, particularly, that require massive amounts of phone numbers that are not telephones at all,” said Matt Skinner with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Calls to 911, 411 and 211 won't change either, he said.
The new area code
As questions arise from Tulsans and other community residents, people simply want to know how they will be affected by this change in their area.
The Corporation Commission spent months holding town hall meetings and sitting down with state and local politicians to inform the public about the number exhaust and the available options. Claremore, Muskogee, Stroud, Vinita, Tulsa and Bartlesville are among the locations where the OCC held awareness events and collected feedback from area code 918 residents.
As individuals prepared for area code 918's depletion, they also advised loved ones unaccustomed to dialing more than seven digits.
The overlay plan updates Oklahoma to the modern system, which has been in place for roughly a decade, Skinner said. Many cell phone users are familiar with having to use area codes when dialing.
As Tulsans incorporate the new link their communication, they are also learning to embrace a new area code that will not replace, but coexist with area code 918. The 918 area represents the Tulsa area and has symbolized its metropolitan existence. Ida Red, 3336 S. Peoria Ave., is filled with T-shirts created by local duo, Louis & Cluck, who hope their design embodies the 918 persona. Steve Cluck created the slogan, "Don't Hate The 918," in 2005, after a run-in with someone who disapproved of the Tulsa lifestyle.
"I actually came out with the 'I Heart Tulsa' T-shirt about five years ago and I was wearing it at a coffee house and a kid saw it and was like, 'Why do you love Tulsa, this place sucks,' and I was like, 'Hey, don't hate the 918,' Cluck recalled. "It just rolled off my tongue and I was like, 'Whoa, that's the next T-shirt.'
Initially a snarky response, Cluck said the slogan soon became self-deprecating, a way for locals to "partake in making fun of our town," he said.
"It's just kind of a belief," Cluck said. "Enjoy the place you're in. Don't hate the 918."
After Cluck produced the T-shirts, business boomed, proving the adoration for the area code.
"It exploded," he said. "'I Heart Tulsa' and 'Don't Hate the 918' have been the two best selling shirts of the line. It's become sort of unofficial slogans for the entire city," he said. "It's kind of like, you know, 'Keep Austin Weird.' It's really taken a life of its own. Now, I feel like it's become engrained in the whole of our city."
As Cluck encouraged appreciation and acceptance of Tulsa, he simultaneously created an awareness of the region and area code.
Phone Home. As Oklahoma experiences its first overlay plan, the state is embracing innovation and change, joining a national trend of 10-digit dialing. Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York and Arkansas also adopted overlay plans in 2010. Eventually, all 10 digits will have to be dialed when making calls in the United States.
"I think the T-shirt helped, actually," he said. "To be honest, I don't think we really had many people running around calling this the 918 until the shirt came out."
Along with Cluck's phrase, many 918ers started becoming a bit possessive over their area code. When word of the new 539 got out, many territorial Tulsans felt threatened.
Cluck is among those celebrating the new area code.
"I'm personally excited about it because it shows the growth of our city," he said. "We're getting bigger. There's a need for the 539 area code.
As Cluck welcomes the new adjustment, he started planning to commemorate the new code with fresh clothing.
Cluck had to wait until the public was aware of the new number before debuting his new design.
"Ever since the day they announced the new area code, I made the shirts right at that moment. I was the first to get on it." The slogan, "539 Feelin' Fine," encourages Tulsans to be receptive of the new area code and appreciate its launch in the Tulsa area.
NUMBERS & FIGURES
Introducing the new 539 area code brings with it an array of issues, but the Tulsa metro is not the only place to have undergone such changes.
"The majority of the commissioners voted in favor of the overlay for a variety of reasons," Skinner said. "No. 1 is the fact that most analysts agree that eventually all areas of the United States will be overlay."
Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York and Arkansas also adopted overlay plans in 2010, according to data from the North American Numbering Plan Administration. Overlay plans are becoming a trend across the nation, as they are cheaper and more technology-friendly, Skinner said.
"The vast majority of the area code additions in the past seven years in America have been overlays," he said. "They did point out that this is a tried and true technology that the vast majority of states are moving toward an overlay."
When the Corporation Commission began to discuss numbering plan options, some Oklahomans and community leaders raised concern about businesses and the unnecessary costs they might incur with altering area codes. The overlay plan proved to be the most inexpensive solution.
"The overlay is cheaper in that businesses don't have to print up new business cards," Skinner said. "The existing phone numbers stay the same, so you don't have to print up new stationary, new business cards, so on and so forth."
As Oklahoma experiences its first overlay plan, it embraces innovation and change, joining a national trend within 10-digit dialing. As the national trend of overlay plans progress, many cities are forced to embrace a change that will one day become the norm. Eventually, all 10 digits will have to be dialed when making calls in the United States. This won't happen anytime soon, Skinner said, and no specific date has been chosen for mandatory 10-digit dialing.
"There are various estimates but that is inevitable," he said. "The overlay allows for a longer period of time before you have another exhaust situation on your hands. The numbers last longer just because mathematically that's the way it works."
NANPA's 2012 exhaustion projection for 918 numbers is just an estimation, Skinner said.
"(It's) a moving date," Skinner said. "Those are not our estimates. By FCC order, we have to use the estimates from the North American Numbering Plan Administration. Those are their estimates. That's their latest estimate. It does change."
Regardless of the exact number exhaust date, the new 539 will coexist with veteran 918 on Friday, April 1. As Tulsa endures its first number exhaust, the region is learning that communication simplification is necessary, even though it may often create Okie identity crises.
The 918 will still reign as the original area code of Northeastern Oklahoma, yet the 539 area code will hopefully be accepted and embraced as a sign of growth and innovation as Oklahoma welcomes change and endures its trials.
Even though area code 539 does not come as a result of a population increase, it signifies expansion and development, two elements representing productivity and progress in Tulsa.
539? It's about time.
-Joe Wertz contributed research and reporting to this article.
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