Montana PSC looks for ways to extend life of 406 area code

406 Area Code
Posted at 5:04 PM, Mar 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-31 11:45:12-04

HELENA — For many people in Montana, the number “406” is more than just an area code – it’s become a symbol of state pride.

Now, time could be running out on Montana’s single area code. The Montana Public Service Commission is asking federal leaders to take action, to help keep 406 going for years to come.

“The 406 area code is a symbol of pride and identity to the people of Montana,” commissioners said in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month. “It is an integral part of our culture and economy.”

One person who knows the power of that symbol is Alex “Papu” Rincon. In 2007, he founded fourOsix, a popular downtown Helena shop and lifestyle brand.

“At the time, there was a lot of Montana-inspired names, but I wanted something that was abstract enough that it made you think,” he said. “That’s when I settled on naming it fourOsix, all spelled out.”

Rincon says having a single area code in Montana means that code really resonates with the people who love the state.

“It’s less about the numbers themselves, 406, and more about the symbol of what it represents, which of course is this quality of life and access to the outdoors and community.”

The fourOsix shop in downtown Helena features dozens of items with the brand's logo, which refers back to the 406 area code.

Montana is one of just 11 states that still have only one area code. Currently, authorities estimate the state will run out of free space in the 406 area code by 2027. The PSC asked the FCC to consider some options for extending that deadline.

Right now, the North American Numbering Plan Administrator assigns phone numbers to carriers and geographic locations in blocks of 1,000. Mike Dalton, a rate analyst with the PSC, says new blocks are being allocated faster than ever in Montana – especially as more mobile and internet-based phone providers enter the market. In some areas, numbers are considered unavailable, but they aren’t being used either.

“That happens often in Montana because there are so many small rural communities that may not be able to support the full 1,000-number block,” Dalton said.

Dalton estimates only 37% of the Montana numbers that have been allocated are currently being used.

The PSC sent its letter in support of states like Maine and North Dakota, which also have one area code close to expiring. They’re asking the FCC for a waiver, allowing them to put off preparations for a new area code while leaders consider ways to extend the current codes’ viability.

One proposal is “individual telephone number pooling,” assigning smaller sets of numbers to carriers based on their specific needs.

“If a carrier needed 500 numbers to serve a particular area, the FCC and NANPA would dole out 500 numbers to that carrier rather than giving them a full 1,000-number block – in which case they would use the 500 numbers and the remaining 500 may go unused and wasted,” said Dalton.

The FCC has asked one of its advisory groups to study the possibility of individual number pooling. The report is due by Aug. 15.

Rincon says he’ll be glad if can find a way to preserve the special status of 406 for longer, but he’s not concerned about whenever a new area code finally comes to Montana.

“It’s less about what number they might add one day, and more about this is the original, 406,” he said.

While all Montana phone numbers still begin with 406, you can’t just dial the last seven digits anymore when calling within the state. Since late last year, callers have had to include 406 when dialing, to accommodate the future 988 number for the National Suicide Lifeline. That three-digit number is set to launch in July.

Read the full letter from the Montana PSC to the FCC below: