Back when the Big Apple was much smaller than the gargantuan high-rises and melting pot of cultures we know and love today, all of New York City’s boroughs shared the same area code established in 1947: 212. This was one of five area codes assigned to New York State, and one of 86 Number Plan Areas established across the U.S. under the North American Numbering Plan (NANP).
Almost 40 years after 212 was established as New York City’s only area code, the NANP did something unexpected. Splitting the empire city into two area codes, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island were moved into the separate numbering plan area code 718, while only Manhattan and The Bronx remained loyal to New York’s good ole’ 212.
While 212 may seem iconic and symbolic of the City’s fast-paced environment and yellow taxi cabs, area code 212 has found a worthy opponent in area code 917, New York City’s first and oldest mobile area code.
There’s a lot to like about 917, and a lot of reasons to want a 917 number of your own. But considering the drastic difference in numbers between the original 212 and the more recent area code, you may be wondering about how area codes were assigned in the beginning and how, if at all, that’s changed in the 75 years since area codes were first created and assigned.
Why Area Codes in the First Place?
In the early days of the telephone, long distance calls needed to be placed manually by an operator, who would make the connection for you. But as population levels and phone usage grew, that system was quickly becoming inefficient. So in the 1940s, Bell designed the North American Number Plan to replace this complicated and outdated system of long-distance phone calling. The goal was to make it possible for a person to call anyone, anywhere in the country at any time with an automated system that didn't require the inefficiency of human intervention.
How Were Area Codes Determined?
If you look at a map of the U.S. overlaid with area codes, the first thing you’ll notice is that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to them, at least from a geographic perspective. By contrast, the numbering of roads on the Interstate Highway System is entirely geography-based, with even-numbered roads stretching east-west, and odd-numbered roads running north-south. Additionally, interstate highway numbers get higher as you drive east or south, for the most part. ZIP codes also follow a straightforward scheme based on geography. Area codes, on the other hand, do no such thing, but that’s by design because they were doled out with an entirely different purpose.
Rather than following a geographic plan, three-digit area codes were initially assigned based on the population of a state, combined with potential needs in the future. In the beginning, every area code had a second digit that was either 1 or 0. States with only one area code were generally assigned 0 as the middle digit, while those with more than one area code used 1. As a result, New York City’s first area code was 212, Chicago’s was 312, and Los Angeles was assigned 213, while Wyoming (307), Vermont (802), and even Florida (305) and 31 other states, were assigned “zero” area codes.
Four years later, on November 10, 1951, area codes were officially rolled out when M. Leslie Denning, mayor of Englewood, New Jersey, dialed a 10-digit California phone number, which was answered 17 seconds later by Alameda, California, Mayor Frank Osborne. A lot has changed in the 70-plus years since that first call.
Laying the Groundwork for the 917 Area Code
The people behind the numbering plan were very forward-thinking. By using just 1 and 0 for the second number in an area code, a degree of future-proofing was built into the system from the beginning. This would allow for the eventual exponential increase in possible phone numbers to be added to the system as the population of the United States continued to grow, particularly in certain cities and states like New York and Los Angeles.
It's hard to say whether the architects of the plan ever envisioned just how necessary those extra digits would become by the late 20th century, as fax machines, pagers, mobile phones and modems used to connect to Internet service providers began to churn through existing phone number combinations at an increasing rate. The combination of these technologies and population growth has led to the creation of even more area codes.
Florida, which started with a single area code in the 1940s boasts 18 today. And where there were once 86 for the entire U.S. in the very beginning, there are now 317 geographic area codes and another 18 non-geographic area codes for a total of 335 – four times what Bell originally allotted, but still well within the possible number combinations they left available by using only 1 and 0 for middle numbers.
Big Apple, Big Area Codes
In 1992, following the first wave of the mobile phone boom of the late 20th century, when everyone and their ma was walking around holding a brick-like Nokia, the New York Telephone Company came up with the idea of introducing 917. The thinking being that it would serve as the default area code for all mobile numbers and pagers throughout the city, as well as changing all previous cell phone numbers to 917 in order to free up more numbers for landlines. The idea had first been pitched in 1990 to relieve number shortages in Manhattan but the request was rejected by the New York Public Service Commission. Two years later, however, the need for this new area code was more pressing and the 917 – the very first overlay area code in the U.S. – was established.
This change no doubt took a lot of getting used to, as people’s mobile phone and pager numbers moved from the 212 and 718 area codes to 917, but as with everything, New Yorkers took it in stride and eventually adjusted to the change.
However, not long after 917 was adopted for mobile and pager numbers, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that restricting area codes to specific services was prohibited. But by then it was too late; 917 numbers had already become grandfathered into New York City culture as a symbol of its lifestyle. No longer were people necessarily tied to the area code associated with their physical address. They could now be united by a common area code across the five boroughs that make up the city so nice, they named it twice.
917: The Area Code That Never Sleeps
From Brooklyn to the Bronx and from Manhattan to Queens, area code 917 is a staple of the concrete jungle, no matter what borough you may find yourself in. Glimmering in the lights of Broadway in Manhattan, riding fast on the New York City Subway, hitting home runs at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, or sitting courtside at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, the 917 area code lives in every fast-walking, hard-working, no-nonsense New Yorker who resides within its coverage area.
No matter what side of the Brooklyn Bridge you find yourself on, the 917 area code is loyally serving all 8.3 million residents from more than 250 neighborhoods within the five boroughs — each as unique as the number that keeps them connected. To date, 917 is the only one of New York City’s seven area code that covers all 300-plus square miles – and beyond.
You Want to Be a Part of the 917 Area Code
Perhaps the country’s most famous — and infamous — city, a little New York lives in every American, even if every American doesn’t live in New York. The City That Never Sleeps inspires millions across the nation to chase dreams, work hard, and lean a little into the weird. To paraphrase Sinatra, if you can make it there, you’re going to make it anywhere.
Thanks to wireless number portability and VoIP phone service, phone number is no longer restricted to the city or state where you live. Virtually anyone can have a phone number with any area code they desire. Live in Oregon but want a New York number? No problem if you have mobile or VoIP service. Landlines are another story, but as studies have shown, those aren’t as popular as they once were. According to the CDC, by 2017, only 6.5 percent of homes in the U.S. utilized a landline only, while just over 50 percent had only mobile phones. So really, there’s nothing stopping you from choosing a phone number that speaks to your state of mind rather than whatever piece of land you happen to call home.
If you want to be a part of it (New York, New York), don’t miss the train. Get your own 917 number and join the New York City communications experience – no matter where you may call home.