Courtesy of/ Bailiwick Clothing Company
D.C.'s (202) area code has lasted almost 70 years, but regulators say it could run out of phone numbers by 2023.
Courtesy of/ Bailiwick Clothing Company
In just a few short years, D.C. could be a city divided — by little more than a three-digit number. The supply of phone numbers with the city's (202) area code is shrinking, raising the possibility that in a few years regulators will have to come up with a second area code for the city.
That happened last week in Virginia when the State Corporation Commission announced that the Hampton Roads area is getting a new area code, (948), ahead of the expected exhaustion of (757) numbers by the end of 2021.
D.C.'s longstanding (202) isn't far behind. According to forecasts by the North American Numbering Plan Administrator — that's the official clearinghouse for area codes in the U.S., Canada and some Caribbean countries — D.C.'s (202) phone numbers could run out as early as the second quarter of 2023. After that, new arrivals seeking a D.C. phone number will likely be assigned a different area code.
And while it may just be three new digits appended to a phone number, the loss of any longstanding area code is about more than just numbers. Artists, writers and residents alike have often adopted their hometown area code as a badge of honor or cultural identifier. In many of his songs, D.C. rapper Wale calls out the region's three area codes. (That prompted a diss-track response from JLuciano, a local rapper known as ... Mr. 202). And in a well-known song of his own, non-local rapper Ludacris professes having multiple, ahem, companions in various area codes — including the (202).
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl — a (703) native — was once spotted wearing a (202) shirt during a concert, and former Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper also sported one. Former professional wrestler Dave Bautista also reps (202), albeit as a tattoo on his torso.
But supplies of (202) numbers are dwindling. NANPA says there are 36 (202) prefixes left to be assigned, which translates to roughly 360,000 phone numbers. That's down from the 59 prefixes that were still available in mid-2018. (The prefixes are the first three digits of the phone number, after the area code. A brand new area code has almost 800 prefixes and can produce almost eight million unique phone numbers.)
"(202) is one of the original area codes that was set up by AT&T back in 1947, so it's lasted pretty long. It's a pretty good run," says Beth Sprague, NANPA's director.
Back then, there were 47 area codes across the U.S. and Canada, with each one representing a large geographic area, most often a state. If a state only had one area code, it got one with a 0 in the middle, hence D.C.'s (202), Virginia's (703), Maryland's (301), Delaware's (302) and so on. States with more than one area code got a 1 in the middle; California started with (213), (415) and (916), for example.
But as states grew in population, and phone use increased, they found themselves adding new area codes. In 1973, for one, Virginia got (804) for the eastern portion of the state. In Maryland, it took until 1991 for the state to add a new area code: (410) for Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. Since then, states have overlaid new area codes in places that already have an area code whose phone numbers have run out; think of Maryland's overlapping (240) and (301), or Northern Virginia's (703) and (571).
D.C.'s (202), though, has persisted for more than seven decades. And until 1990, the Washington region's modest population made it possible for local residents to avoid using area codes altogether; a D.C. office worker could call a counterpart in Arlington or Bethesda without dialing an area code at all and vice versa. ("We can take some evanescent pride in this evidence that Washington has arrived as a big city, a city too big for its God-given digits," said Washington Post writer Charles Trueheart at the time.)
Sprague says the eventual demise of (202) phone numbers was inevitable, largely because of the rapid growth of technology. "I think a lot of it is probably the advent of the cell phone and those devices. Every device needs a number, even though you're not using it," she says, referring to everything from tablets to those landlines you might get through your cable TV provider but never actually use.
And a change in how cell phone numbers are assigned may have sped the demise: now that you can take your area code with you when you move from one part of the country to another, fewer numbers are being freed up and put back into rotation for other residents to have. (This could have the opposite effect, though — people moving to D.C. could opt to keep their original area codes, too.)
Planning for a new area code usually starts about three years before an existing area code is exhausted. That process hasn't kicked off locally, so there isn't yet a new area code assigned for D.C. In Maryland, (227) is expected to join (301) and (240), though not until at least 2025. And Sprague says there's always the chance that (202) numbers could survive a little longer than their expected exhaustion date; sometimes demand for an area code can slow, she says, extending its life span.
But no area code lasts forever, and no amount of preparation will likely settle the nerves of people who may eventually have to get whatever area code is assigned after (202) is fully exhausted. The area code is an identity, a shorthand way to tell someone where you're from. And if they have a (202) area code of their own, it's an indicator of a shared language of sorts.
"People just gravitate to [area codes]," says J.C. Smith, co-founder of the Bailiwick Clothing Company, which makes D.C.-themed clothing — including a t-shirt with (202) on it. "It makes them feel like an insider and they can still rep where they are from."
And that (202) shirt he sells? Smith says it's still popular. "That's always been one of our best selling shirts. It's our original design, and so that's the one we started and the one we're most known for," he says.
In Washington, (202) isn't just local, but also a signifier of federal power. Government offices within D.C. limits use (202) numbers, as do congressional offices. And that can have unexpected downsides. During the impeachment proceedings of President Clinton, some residents with (202) numbers with a 255 prefix reported getting calls from Americans demanding their representative or senator vote one way or another. The congressional prefix, though, is 225.
In many other situations, change can come hard — especially when it means dialing three new numbers. In a famous "Seinfeld" episode from 1998, Elaine mourns losing her (212) number after the city added a (646) variant — which confused one of her suitors.
"It's a new area code," she explained. "What area? New Jersey?" he responded. "No, no. It's right here in the city. It's the same as 212. They just multiplied it by three, and then they added one to the middle number. It's the same," she insisted. "Do I have to dial a 1 first?" he inquired. They never went on a date.
But for Sprague, (202) is just another of the many area codes that come and go. And even after (202) phone numbers are exhausted at some point in the near future, it's not like they're gone forever. An errant (202) number could free up now and again, she says.
"I'm in the business of conserving numbers," she says. "So I don't really get too close to the numbers."