People in Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore will have to add a new set of three digits to their contact lists starting in March.

Customers requesting a new phone number for any device may get the new area code 667, state regulators announced Wednesday. The new code is being activated because the Federal Communications Commission expects the existing 410 and 443 codes will be exhausted in early 2012, said Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Demand drove the need to create a new area code, including a sudden spike in the number of new numbers requested in September. Nazarian speculated that mobile phone companies may have been booking numbers in advance of the release of the much-hyped iPhone 4S on Friday, when they may expect to sign up thousands of new customers.

The PSC, which regulates land lines and long-distance service in Maryland, accelerated the process to activate a new area code because the state has fewer than 20,000 of the other phone numbers available. That's "closer than we like to come," Nazarian said.

The new area code will permit an additional 8 million numbers. It will be issued in the areas where 410 and 443 codes are used — from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore. The rollout is expected to go smoothly, because many network and programming improvements were done during previous area code additions.

Area codes were first applied in 1947 to 86 geographic regions. Now there are more than 350 area codes, including 800 numbers and others that aren't tied to a particular place.

In Maryland, the 301 area code sufficed for decades. The 443 and 240 area codes were added in 1997, just five years after activation of the 410 area code, a sign of the technology boom that brought modems, cellphones, pagers and fax machines.

Although there are 10,000 possible combinations between 000 and 999, picking three for Maryland's next area code proved tricky. Many combinations are already assigned or reserved for toll-free numbers and emergency uses.

"You end up with a relatively small number," Nazarian said. "You look at the ones that are left that are least similar to the ones you already have."

That leaves the state with a new area code that is one digit off from the one commonly associated with Satan. "It's not 666; it's not 999. It's 667," Nazarian said jokingly at a news conference. A member of his telecommunications staff dubbed the state's new area code "the neighbor of the Beast."

While new area codes have implications for everyday life and collective memory, they carry less cultural significance in terms of geographic identity than they once did, said Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland.

"You have this intermingling of area codes," said Parks, who studies popular culture. "It speaks to, I think, a loss of commonality."

But the area codes still can act as meaningful "markers," especially as many people keep their phone numbers when they relocate. "The more transient we become, the more important these little markers are," she said. And in Maryland, she said, having a 410 area code "means you've been around for a while, in a place where longevity matters."

As for committing the three new digits to memory, that could take time, said Susan M. Courtney, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. "The capacity for holding a list of numbers in working memory ranges somewhere between three and nine items," she said. That's why we write phone numbers in groups of three and four digits, she added.

Then again, that's what speed dial is for. "We're kind of out of practice with that kind of skill already," Courtney said.

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New number



The Federal Communications Commission authorized a new area code, 667, that will be assigned to new phone numbers starting in March. It will be issued to customers in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Caroline, Carroll, Cecil, Dorchester, Harford, Howard, Kent, Queen Anne's, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester counties