In this May 16, 2019 photo, a driver uses his cell phone in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has been able to dial in a few strategies to successfully extend the life of Maine’s 207 area code a bit longer, and continues to explore further action. This is wonky work, but it matters.

Sure, there is a lot going on right now. A single 207 area code doesn’t make gas any cheaper or help keep a roof over people’s heads. Preserving Maine’s lone area code frankly seemed like a bigger deal when we wrote about it back in February of 2020, on the other side of a global pandemic, a war in Europe and record inflation. Even with that perspective, however, this area code issue deserves continued attention.

“I think it’s important for a couple of reasons. One, a lot of businesses have really come to rely on it,” PUC Chairman Phil Bartlett told the BDN editorial board on Tuesday. “There’s so many businesses that sort of use 207 in their branding, that I think it matters and it’s important to folks.”

He’s not wrong. Good luck finding an industry in Maine that doesn’t include a business with “207” in the name. There’s even a TV show.

“I think Maine people have come to identify with it,’ Bartlett added. “It’s part of the branding of the state.”

Working to preserve that brand has long made sense to us, especially since Maine isn’t exactly running out of phone numbers. It’s not as if a massive influx of people has taken all the numbers. Instead, a big part of the problem is an inflexible national system for allocating large blocks of numbers (1,000 at a time) to phone companies. Many of those numbers sit unused, artificially moving Maine closer to exhausting the 207 area code.

Bartlett explained how the PUC has been pushing back on requests for large blocks of numbers, and petitioning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to move to instant numbering or reduce the size of number blocks, which could “dramatically extend the life of the area code.” At the state level, Bartlett said consolidating Maine’s rate centers — the geographical areas used to determine the assignment of specific numbers, often done on a city or town basis in Maine — could also help.

According to a PUC press release last week, its efforts have led to 677,000 numbers being returned to the numbering pool from unused or lightly used number blocks that had already been allocated. This work has already paid off, with the projected 207 exhaustion now forecasted for 2027, rather than a previous estimate of 2025.

But again, there are still plenty of numbers yet to be used if the system for allocating them can be improved. A relatively recent report found that Maine was using less than 40 percent of possible 207 numbers.

“We’re only using 36 percent of our numbers, so there’s no reason we should be near exhaust, except for the way these numbers get allocated,” Bartlett told us. “We’ve been trying to work within our own authority, within the FCC rules, just trying to hold folks accountable in order to extend the life. It’s foolish to go down the road of dealing with a new area code, and all that entails and the frustration that would cause, if we can avoid it.”

We continue to agree.

Maine is not alone in this predicament. New Hampshire, for example, has also petitioned the FCC in an effort to extend its single 603 area code. According to Bartlett, number exhaustion could become a problem for the country as a whole years down the road, so efforts to improve the situation in Maine could have helpful national implications as well.

“People clearly care about it, so if it’s something we can make a meaningful difference in, particularly with a modest amount of resources, then it seems worthwhile,” Bartlett said.

If you’re a bit exhausted by the repeated conversation about the 207 area code potentially  being exhausted, that would be understandable. But with more of this work at the PUC, and hopefully at the federal level, the doomsday scenarios for Maine’s sole area code could continue to be pushed further and further into the future.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...