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Bright lights, big city — and 10-digit dialing

From now on, we have to dial 10 digits — the area code plus the seven-digit phone number — to make a local call. Such is the price of growth, and the consequent arrival of a second area code in Central Texas.

It’s a trivial price to pay, those 10 digits. Residents who complain that Austin is turning into Dallas (or Houston) every time the city experiences change undoubtedly will grumble, but 10-digit dialing should quickly become habit and can hardly be called an inconvenience. Growth has its share of big negatives, like skyrocketing housing prices and ever-worsening traffic congestion. A new area code is nothing.

Central Texas’ new area code, 737, will be assigned to new phone customers starting July 1. The new area code will overlap the old 512, so no current phone numbers change. The only change is the need to dial 10 digits and update automatically dialed contact lists if they don’t already include the area code on local numbers. Forget to dial 10 digits and a fast busy signal will remind you.

Overlapping area codes for the same region is a huge improvement over the inconvenient and sometimes expensive changes a new code assigned geographically would have forced on current residents and businesses. No new numbers to memorize. No new business cards or letterheads to order.

Good-old 512 has covered Central Texas well for 66 years, but the numbers available to it are near depletion. Each area code can accommodate 7.92 million phone numbers, which was a healthy number back when most households had a single landline. Now that every member of a modern, connected family seems to have his or her own cellphone, 512 numbers have fallen in short supply.

Then, of course, there’s population growth. Austin last year became the 11th most populous city in the United States. According to figures released in May by the Census Bureau, more than 25,000 people moved to Austin between July 2011 and July 2012, pushing the city’s population to 842,592.

There was a time when locally owned department, grocery and drug stores helped define towns and cities and contributed to a sense of community. Area codes, in their own small way, did the same. They identified where we lived and conjured for those dialing them an image of a place, whether it was the Hill Country or the expansive horizon of West Texas.

Now with more than two dozen area codes statewide, and with cellphone numbers attached to persons rather than places, area codes are mostly just three-digit numbers now — prefixes to the prefix.

When area codes were introduced in 1947, Texas was assigned four: 915 for West Texas and the Panhandle; 214 for Dallas and Northeast Texas; 713 for Houston and Southeast Texas; and 512 for Austin, San Antonio and the rest of Central and South Texas. Imagine one area code covering Austin and San Antonio all the way down to Brownsville! Such was Texas back in the day.

But the state’s steady urbanization was well underway when area codes arrived. Fort Worth and the region around it were given their own area code in 1953. A few years later, Lubbock, Amarillo and the Panhandle were separated from West Texas and, in 1983, Galveston, Beaumont and Southeast Texas were removed from Houston’s original 713 area code.

Since 1990, new area codes have been added every few years, with the first overlay created in 1998 in Dallas by removing the geographic boundary that divided 214 and 972. It marked the state’s introduction to 10-digit dialing for local calls. Houston is scheduled to receive its fourth area code — another overlay — next summer.

Seven-digit dialing had a nice run locally. We acknowledge its passing. And with the arrival of 10-digit dialing, we find further confirmation that Austin has become a big city — as though sitting in traffic doesn’t remind us of that fact every day.

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