Northeast Wisconsin will receive a new area code next month as 920 phone numbers are running out.
All current customers will keep their existing phone numbers, and the new 274 area code will be used for to new customers, according to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, or PSC.
Laura Fay, Universal Service and Digital Equity manager for the PSC, said northeast Wisconsin’s 920 area code is expected to run out of unassigned prefixes — the three digits after an area code — by next year.
"Once all of those are assigned, if we didn't have a new code, providers would be unable to serve their customers," she said. "That's why we have created this new overlay area code, which is the 274."
According to the PSC, the 274 area code will be in service beginning May 5 and will start being assigned once all phone numbers with the 920 area code have been used.
An area code overlay adds a second area code to the geographic region served by an existing area code, allowing multiple area codes to coexist in the same area.
Some communities included in the new overlay include Appleton, Beaver Dam, Berlin, Fond du Lac, Fort Atkinson, Green Bay, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Ripon, Sheboygan, Sturgeon Bay and Watertown.
Fay said the rapid growth of cell phones has increased demand for telephone numbers and contributes to areas running out of assignable prefixes.
"When you had a home phone line, it was just one phone for the household," she said. "Now, myself, my husband (and) my two kids — all four of us have phones."
She added that many business devices, like fax machines, office phones and others, also require phone numbers, which contributes to the need for new overlays.
"All these things are increasing the demand for those phone numbers," she said.
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Before an area code runs out of available phone numbers, the North American Numbering Plan Administrator — the organization responsible for coordinating area code relief — reserves a new code and makes sure that new area code isn’t too similar to others in a state or bordering states, Fay said.
The North American Numbering Plan then files a request with the PSC to begin replacement, Fay said. The commission then must approve the request.
In the past, she said the North American Numbering Plan Administrators would present two options: A new area code overlay or a split. A split causes half the people within an area code to change phone numbers, and was originally used to avoid 10-digit dialing, Fay said.
She said the PSC split Milwaukee’s 414 area code twice to create northeast Wisconsin’s 920 area code in 1997 and southeast Wisconsin’s 262 code in 1999.
Nowadays, the only option offered is an area code overlay as 10-digit dialing has become the norm after the Federal Communications Commission required providers in 36 states, including Wisconsin, to transition to 10-digit dialing to ensure calls to the 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline go through.
Fay said the rise of cell phones has also contributed to 10-digit dialing becoming normalized.
"Most people make most of their phone calls using smartphones," she said. "Most of those numbers are already programmed right in and not actually dialed."
Northeastern Wisconsin isn't the only area in the state that's needed an extra area code.
About a decade ago, the PSC created an overlay for northwest Wisconsin’s 715 and northeast Wisconsin’s 920 area codes, creating the 534 and 274 codes, respectively. Fay said implementation was put on hold until recently.
Last year, the commission approved an overlay for south central and southwest Wisconsin’s 608 area code, creating the 353 area code. The commission anticipates running out of 608 phone numbers in 2024. The state expects the 262 area code in southeast Wisconsin will be the next to need a new area code by 2034, followed by Milwaukee’s 414 area code by 2051.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct information regarding the 534 area code in northwest and central Wisconsin.