Saskatoon

Hold the phone: Why Saskatchewan needs a third area code

By 2021, Saskatchewan will have its third area code. Do we need it? We sent reporter David Shield deep into the heart of number darkness to find out.

New 474 area code to be in place by October 2021

Saskatchewan's new area code, 474, is expected to be in place by October 2021. (CBC)

Twenty-four million phone numbers.

That's what telephone companies will have to work with once Saskatchewan gets a new area code.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) gave the green light to our third area code (474) that will be in place by October 2021. 

It will go along with the old standard number (306) and the newer one (639).

Why? The province is apparently running out of phone numbers.

According to the CRTC, telecom companies expect the province to run out of numbers by 2022.

Recent estimates suggest Saskatchewan's population sits at around 1.1 million people.

You don't have to be a math major to figure out that 24 million is higher than, say 1.1 million. By quite a bit.

So what's going on?

For that answer, you have to enter into the cryptic world of phone numbers.

Saskatchewan is getting a third area code, but that doesn't mean the province is running out of phone numbers. CBC's David Shield explains. 1:28

Numbers

There are three parts to a phone number: the area code, a three digit central office code and then a four digit line number.

The area code tells the telephone company what province the phone is originally from, the central office code narrows it down further to a city or region and the line number points to the precise phone.

Here's where it gets a little complicated.

Saskatchewan is broken up into 228 exchange areas, each one a little geographic island that allows phone companies to organize numbers across the province. The areas are also (generally) the line that divides a local call from a long distance call.

Telephone companies (SaskTel, Rogers, etc.) apply for local area codes (the middle three numbers) within each exchange area. That company then "owns" that three digit number, within, say, Melfort.

However, let's say only 50 people within Melfort subscribe to Rogers. That means there are a whole lot of numbers that aren't being used.

How many cell phones can you possibly have?- Douglas Birdwise, Canadian Numbering Administration Consortium

You might expect there to be a central organizing body to deal with this tangled mess. You would be right.

It's called the Canadian Numbering Administration Consortium. It's a company owned by telecom service providers to organize all of this rigamarole.

"Suddenly, you get four or five carriers operating in an exchange area, each needing at least one central office code in order to have numbers to provide to their customers," said Douglas Birdwise, the consortium's business manager.

"So, they have all of these numbers but they don't assign them all to their customers in that exchange area because the exchange area does not contain enough people to use up all the numbers."

That's why we are running out of phone numbers.

There are those with rebellious notions of a new system that would dump all the numbers in a big pile and not have them broken up among different companies. It's called pool numbering and was implemented in the U.S. about ten years ago after an explosion in the amount of phone numbers being given out.

There is a problem with pool numbering. It would cost a lot of money.

"We're talking billions of dollars to implement," said Birdwise. "In Canada, we looked at that and said we don't consume the same quantity of numbers that the U.S. is consuming, and we don't feel a need to spend a significant amount of money."

One quick note: remember those central office codes? They can't start with a one or a zero. That's why there are only eight million combinations.

The future

So how long will the new 474 area code last?

Telecom companies have told CNAC they believes it will be good until 2048. That's 29 years, for the non-math majors out there.

Considering it's been a measly eight years since we received the 639 area code, this may sound a little ... optimistic.

Or is it?

Birdwise believes the market is reaching its saturation point when it comes to cell phones. While there may be four or five phones in a family these days, that number is expected to level out.

"How many cell phones can you possibly have?" he asked. "When you've got one, that's probably enough."

There are rumblings on the horizon that the number of phone numbers might be on the increase again.

Some smart devices, like, say, a refrigerator that can receive phone calls, require their own telephone numbers. Some anti-theft vehicle tracking systems can also require their own phone number.

About the Author

David Shield is a web writer for CBC Saskatoon.

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