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As 716 numbers run low, Western New York can expect a second area code in two years

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Bills Panthers pregame (copy)

Amanda Birdsall and her son Bentley, 9, pose for a photo in front of the 716 before a Bills game at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. The area code has been popularized in recent years as an emblem of regional solidarity.

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Whither the 716?

The area code, popularized in recent years as an emblem of regional solidarity, is running out of numbers and unlikely to be issued to new phone users two years from now.

Current phone users will retain the prefix. But phone numbers issued after June 2024 could be given a new area code, pending regulatory approval. The lone exception: Carriers can continue issuing 716 numbers if they have phone numbers in their inventory, which can grow, for example, when customers discontinue their phone service.

"That number has really come to be an icon for the region, so it will be shocking to see if it, in fact, happens," said Nate Mroz, owner of The BFLO Store, whose four shops carry 716 apparel, glassware, pillows and other household items.

BFLO Store (copy)

A pair of 716 trunks, lower right, can be seen for sale in The BFLO Store at the Eastern Hills Mall, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. 

"When I started the business 10 years ago, it was a thing, but not anything like it has been like the past two years," Mroz said. "Just as the bison is a symbol of Buffalo, I don't see how those three numbers could ever go away."

The New York Public Service Commission has to consent to a new area code replacing 716, said Heidi Wayman, manager of data management for the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, which assigns phone numbers.  

The 716 area code, issued in 1947, is one of New York State's originals, created by AT&T and the Bell System. Its range extends from the Canadian border to the Pennsylvania state line, encompassing Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.

The 716 once had an even larger geographic profile. 

In 1954, a split in the 716 area code in Western New York and the 315 area code in Central New York resulted in the creation of the 607 area code for parts of the Southern Tier. In 2001, another split within the 716 created the 585 area code in Rochester.

But splits are now frowned upon because of the disruption to the public and to businesses, Wayman said.

"A split hasn't been approved for many years because the industry prefers what's called an 'area code overlay,' so that customers don't have to change their phone numbers," Wayman said.

The New York Public Service Commission approved its last two area code requests: 845 in the Hudson Valley area and 526 on Long Island.

If it happens with the 716 area code, the North American Numbering Plan Administrator will then assign a new area code for new phone users, she said.

"Everything is cyclical in time, and whatever that new area code is will, maybe in a few decades, outshine 716," Mroz said.

Or not, he said.

"Because it's been embraced so much, I have a hard time thinking that anyone, once they get the new number, will go away from that 716 aura," he said.

Michael Bowen, who owns Pasteurized Tees on Elmwood Avenue, said he'd probably take a lighthearted approach on the T-shirts he sells if the change happens.

"I think it would be fun to come up with something you make jokes about, like we try to do with weather and used to do with sports," he said.

Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News. 

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